(TNS) — MIAMI — Serial entrepreneur Jim McKelvey likes solving problems. And as the founder of LaunchCode, he has tackled a massive one: the nationwide shortage of computer programmers.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that 1 million jobs in programming alone will go unfilled by 2020. McKelvey, who co-founded the mobile payment firm Square and now lives in South Florida, believes there are plenty of talented, driven people to fill those jobs, but they don't have the traditional computer science degree, they don't know a particular computer language or they lack relevant job experience that gets them in the door. LaunchCode's model provides the key for them, he said, and they don't have to take out big loans or do years of retraining. "It's really possible," said McKelvey in a recent interview. "Not to minimize the work, it's a lot of work, but the way we have set it up it is extremely affordable."

LaunchCode, founded in St. Louis in 2013, is a nonprofit organization that creates pathways to economic opportunity and upward mobility through apprenticeships and job placement in technology.

In its first year of operation in Miami, LaunchCode has made 56 placements. Together with the St. Louis office, the nonprofit has placed more than 300 people in full-time technology jobs. This year it plans to expand to Providence, R.I., and Kansas City, Mo. President Barack Obama highlighted LaunchCode's success at the announcement of a national TechHire initiative last year.

In its annual report, LaunchCode said 90 percent of its apprenticeships were converted to full-time permanent jobs, 96 percent of hires remained in their jobs after six months, and 30 percent were promoted within 18 months.

"A statistic we are very proud of is the annual (median) salary increase pre- to post-LaunchCode is more than 3X — $17,000 to $54,000," McKelvey said. "And once you have three or four years' experience, it can be six figures. It's just flat-out life-changing."

In Miami, about 30 percent of LaunchCode's apprentices do not have a college degree, and 45 percent have a non-tech degree. LaunchCode matches its prospects with training programs. One of its most successful efforts has been its partnership with the Idea Center, Miami Dade College's entrepreneurship hub. The Idea Center's CS50X is a live, in-person version of Harvard's acclaimed coding course, which has provided more than 350 people so far free or low-cost education. Once they have finished the training, LaunchCode has helped students get jobs.

Aylwing Olivas was working part time in a technical job, but dreamed of programming full time. With the help of LaunchCode, he signed up for CS50x and then took some advance training in iOS programming: "I fell in love with mobile development. I began learning as much as I could, and it was great being surrounded by people with similar interests."

Boca Raton tech company Modernizing Medicine offered a group from LaunchCode a tour and then held one-on-one interviews. Olivas was invited to a second technical interview, in which he created an application in two hours in one of the newer computing languages. Olivas, who studied biology at Florida International University, was hired as a full-time iOS software engineer at Modernizing Medicine. "You are tested on what you know, not what your background is," he said.

In an interview at LaunchCode's offices at Miami Dade College's Idea Center, McKelvey shared some of his insights about LaunchCode and its first year in South Florida.

Q: What inspired you to start LaunchCode?

A: There's a tech-talent gap nationwide that is holding back all companies; basically, the U.S. economy is not growing as well as it could because we don't have the talented people we need to grow the companies. This is ironic because it turns out there is a reasonably quick path to employable skills in this area. What LaunchCode did as an experiment first and now as a proven model is we try to invert the hiring process. First we work with the companies to find out exactly what they want and then rapidly train people into those positions and also we developed some innovations in placements to 'de-risk' it for the companies. That's turned out to be the key. People that LaunchCode places are folks who typically would be rejected by normal hiring processes of a company, but they are great and we give them a chance, and 90 percent of our apprentices get full-time jobs, sometimes straight away.

Q: How did you come to use the Harvard CS50x coursework in your programs?

A: In St. Louis, we ran the course without any local educational support and as a result we had a 10 to 15 percent completion rate. Leandro Finol, who runs the Idea Center at Miami Dade College, gave us a too-good-to-be true deal: He put together a team of teachers and, using the Harvard curriculum, taught classes here. ... There were people to answer questions, there were study groups, there was more structure, and the pass rate was north of 50 percent. The education is world-class. I would argue there is no better course, and I have seen many of them. Harvard's course is so good, they are using it at Yale _ that tells you something.

We've had people who are in their 50s and 60s take the classes and do well enough to get a job. I met a guy last month who had been unemployed for years, went through the CS50x class, got a job at MasterCard, and for the first time in five years, is now employed. He's 56 and he's now a manager for MasterCard making $70,000. This isn't charity. This isn't MasterCard being nice. It's MasterCard getting a really talented guy in the door as a programmer and then realizing they got a manager with 20 years' experience. He would have never gotten that opportunity.

Q: How do you measure success?

A: The first metric is the company placement rate (currently 90 percent). What we consider a success is a company voluntarily choosing to hire an apprentice full time. We explicitly tell them, don't lower your standards, but at least be open to the idea that someone who you may not have taken a look at can meet those standards.

Then you look at an ecosystem. St. Louis is a little farther ahead than Miami is right now, so I can speak more to that, but it is literally transforming to a region to go from a talent deficit to neutrality and then a surplus. We haven't created surplus, but we have significantly reduced the talent deficit in St. Louis and we will do so here.

That ripples. Done at scale, there is a citywide regional advantage to LaunchCode, and that is the goal I keep in mind most. In a study done in San Francisco, every job in programming creates five other jobs with it, service jobs; more cars and homes are sold. It's a huge lift to the economy.

We still have thousands of people to go to address the needs in St. Louis and thousands more in Miami, but that's the metric of success.



Age: 50

Entrepreneurial highlights: Co-founder of Square, the San Francisco-based mobile payments company that recently went public. Co-founder of LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization that connects tech companies with talented and trained apprentices. LaunchCode (launchcode.org), started in St. Louis in 2013 and expanded to Miami (launchcode.org/southflorida) in early 2015. LaunchCode plans to expand to other cities beginning this year. Founded several other companies in earlier years.

Education: Bachelor's in computer science and economics from Washington University in St. Louis.

Personal: Born in Missouri. Married to Anna; they have a young son. Owned a second home here for a few years but moved his family to South Florida full time in 2014.

Other interests: He's a glass artist and owner of a glass art factory and education center in St. Louis. He's also an inventor, a pilot and an author. 

©2016 Miami Herald, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.