Right around this time last year, Edward Young was donning a cap and gown for graduation at St. John’s University in New York. He figured his bachelor’s degree in computer science would open doors to all sorts of tech jobs, but a few rounds of interviews proved otherwise.
Scrolling through an employment website months later, Young stumbled across a listing for Revature, a Northern Virginia company offering 12 weeks of computer programming classes. Instead of asking students to hand over upward of $10,000 — the going rate for similar “coding boot camps” — Revature pays them minimum wage during the training. And upon graduation, the company sends its software engineers out on two-year assignments at federal agencies and banks and other corporations.
“This place sold me on the idea that in a few weeks you get the equivalent of two years of industry experience,” said Young, who is finishing up the immersion course at Revature. “Just the amount of knowledge that employers expect is outside the scope of what they actually teach you in school. My degree gave me a foundation and the right mind-set, but it wasn’t exactly enough.”
Landing a job fresh out of college can be daunting, even for those with a degree in what is perceived as a hot field. About 49,000 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in computer science in 2015, federal data shows, a total that has risen sharply in recent years. While economists say there are more openings and greater demand for young graduates than in years past, degree-holders often find themselves shut out of entry-level jobs that require more experience than college classes and internships have afforded. That’s where Revature comes in, with a hybrid model that blends elements of a traditional apprenticeship and coding courses, with the aim of bridging the skills gap.
“We want to create a pathway between college graduates, who struggle finding a job because every job requires experience, and companies who say I can’t find people who have the skills they need,” said Joe Vacca, chief marketing officer for Reston-based Revature. “Businesses used to have three- or six-month training programs for entry-level positions, but those have gone away. Companies just aren’t investing in that early-stage training, so we’re filling that gap.”
At its core, Revature is a staffing agency, and until three years ago staffing was its primary business. But that changed as the firm found it difficult to find people with the skills that employers required. The price structure is still a bit similar to an employment agency: Employers pay Revature while graduates are under contract, and Revature keeps a percentage and then pays workers. Salaries range from $50,000 to $65,000 a year.
Unlike a traditional staffing firm, Revature uses its own money to train software engineers, hoping to recoup the investment on the back end.
The company in the past year has launched paid training programs at 10 colleges, including University of Maryland University College, George Mason University and the City University of New York. The schools have to provide only a space, with Revature covering all other expenses.
As for the students, they must make it through several rounds of interviews and show an aptitude for learning to code. Vacca said Revature prefers a mix of majors and has welcomed people with degrees in biology, business and English, among others.
But on a recent visit to Revature’s campus in Reston, the vast majority of trainees held degrees in computer science or other tech-related fields. That raises the question of why people with a formal education in software development would need any more training.
“In school, you don’t really learn about making coding applications. It’s more running scripts to analyze equations and model data,” said Danni Tang, 25, who holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from New York University. “This training elevated my experience and put me at an intermediate level.”
Through Revature, Tang will start working at Capital One this spring. She and her classmates with tech degrees, including Young, said their college coursework focused primarily on theory and less on the technical skills needed to get a job. That disconnect became apparent as they started looking for work.
“We’re not trying to replace universities,” Vacca said. “We’re just saying: ‘What’s in demand now? Let us teach you those skills.’ ”
Coding boot camps have proved more nimble than universities at preparing students for the ever-changing field of programming, but some in the industry have questioned the long-term employment prospects of graduates who sometimes struggle to find work.
Revature has sidestepped that problem with its two-year employment contract. But tech recruiter Dave Fecak, an independent consultant in New York, wonders whether students are locking themselves into an agreement that might stunt their earning potential.
“If someone in this field took a job upon graduation and worked for a year, they could easily see a 10 percent to 15 percent bump the next year and get $75,000,” he said. “There is an opportunity cost here.”
Fecak also wonders what happens if Revature graduates want out of the contract to pursue a higher-paying job or fail to get placed with a client. Would they have to repay the money the company invested in their training?
Vacca said that if Revature was unable to place a candidate that person would be let out of the contract. So far, he said, the company has more jobs than candidates, so the prospects of graduates not finding work are slim.
Vacca said what Revature does best is give people who might otherwise be ignored a foot in the door.
Tom Greiner of Accenture Federal Services, a government contractor in Arlington, is working more these days with Revature graduates. That is a change for a company that previously recruited almost exclusively from Virginia Tech or the University of Virginia.
Revature’s graduates “have industry-recognized certifications that we know are hard to achieve . . . so they’ve proven that they have the skills and competence,” he said. “They just wouldn’t have come through the normal recruiting path for us, but they hit the ground running.”