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Mississippi Coding Academies producing graduates whose talents are in big demand

By BECKY GILLETTE

Far too many Americans end up with staggering amounts of college debt for a degree that might not allow them to find a good job. One in four Americans has student loan debt owing an average of $37,172.

Dr. Sarah Lee

Richard A. Sun

An alternative path is the Mississippi Coding Academies, a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 2017 that provides a free 11-month program that helps graduates land jobs with starting salaries averaging $37,200 per year. MCA is supported with funding from the State of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, Comcast, Kellogg Foundation, the Appalachian Region Commission, Ergon and other donors.

MCA has programs in Jackson and in Starkville — the Golden Triangle Region (GTR). Across both sites, there were 20 graduates the first year and 33 the second year. There are 54 students currently in training. The Starkville program is affiliated with MSU. Participants have MSU student identifications that allow them to use MSU resources such as the library and email, and participate in the career fair held each semester.

Richard A. Sun, CFA, co-founder of the MCA and director of the Jackson site, said the program is unique in the nation.

“Major tech companies and national tech leaders tell us that our Mississippi Model is a unique synthesis: non-profit, cost-free, simulated workplace, 11-month, M-F 9-5, full-stack training targeted to young adults in minimum wage jobs,” Sun said. “Thus, we have branded it as The Mississippi Model to associate Mississippi with an innovation in tech. We are growing rapidly.”

Most students are underserved recent high school graduates not planning to attend college. About 72 percent of students are African American, and 32 percent female.

Sun said MCA was the first to brand this model as a work place rather than a classroom, replacing education words with work place words and highlighting business concepts more than educational ones.

“We are educating using the ‘work place’ and preparing the coder/developers for lifetime learning in the tech work place,” Sun said. “In July 2019, we started an evening program for workers teaching front-end coding primarily to veterans. With funding from Comcast, we have been able to extend it to a full-stack program. It has the potential to train a larger number of coder/developers at low-cost. We have established a for-profit subsidiary, Mississippi Code Works, to provide contract coding to companies and part-time jobs to our coders in training. The first small project is underway.”

Estimates are that students were making $10-14,000 annually before entering the program–assuming they worked a full-time job at minimum wage. Thus, the program increased their income 2.5-3.5 times. The first 20 employed coders from Jackson are earning a total of $465,000 more annually than before entering the program. MCA estimates that average annual income for coders will be $75,000, assuming a normal salary path for a coder/developer in Jackson and the average compensation and data from Code.org. The increased income of each coder should be about $210,000 over five years. Aggregate increased income for the Jackson coders is estimated at $4.2 million. Similar results are expected for the GTR coders.

In addition, MCA estimates that between 25 to 33 percent of the graduates have the potential to develop into “Super Coders” earning well above $150,000 per year.

It isn’t just software companies that need coders.

“Technology is everywhere,” said Dr. Sarah Lee, who leads the MCA program in Starkville. “Small businesses to large corporations are hiring computing talent for roles that may include technical support, software testing, software development and system administration.”

Lee said students do not need advanced math skills to learn to write software. She said a big part of the process is problem solving. Students write code, test it, find it does not work and then have to be able to problem solve to find the defect that is causing it to not work.

This is a field of employment where there is more demand than supply. Code.org (https://code.org/advocacy/state-facts/MS.pdf) reports 67 percent of all new Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) jobs are in computing, and there are more than 1,000 open computing jobs in Mississippi. The Mississippi Department of Employment Security reports that workers in computing positions earn an average annual wage of $67,820, which is much higher than the average annual wage for all occupations of $38,910.

Graduates of the program will have learned full-stack computer programming, meaning they can code the front-end application interface that the user sees and the back-end code to make applications run. They learn to build applications for multiple operating systems and the web.

While there is no cost to be a part of the program, students must commit to attending during office hours for nearly a year. Trainee coders need to show that they’re willing to do the hard work required to learn coding and succeed in a professional office environment.

Students are taught both coding skills and business soft skills. They learn how to give presentations, understand entrepreneurship, and communicate effectively. They learn coding in a simulated business environment.

Lee said there are some barriers that need to be lifted to help meet the demand for coders.

“One challenge for those who complete our training is that many job descriptions, particularly in large companies, are written with a bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement,” Lee said. “While some of our MCA participants enter the program with a bachelor’s degree, many do not. There are not enough computer science degrees being granted each year to fill all of the open jobs in the U.S. Those who complete the MCA and do not hold a degree find placements in companies or government agencies that have removed that degree requirement. I believe that companies must reconsider the necessity of that degree requirement if they want to close the gap on unfilled computing positions. As computing and technology expand in our digital economy, that gap is going to widen unless we are more flexible with those entry level requirements.”

For more information, see www.mscoding.org.

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About Becky Gillette