Less than two years ago, Darc Boykin was working at the Uniqlo megastore on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. "I hated it," he said.
Boykin's story is particularly striking because he belongs to a group whose job prospects are often seen as going down, not up: College dropouts. But people who don't have a four-year degree make up a significant part of the workforce. Boykin goes to show that for some people, it's still possible to move up the economic ladder without shelling out for a college degree -- if you pick the right career.
A recent report from Brookings Institution even proposed promoting these jobs, dubbed "mid-tech" jobs, as a way to revitalize cities that have lost their high-wage manufacturing base.
What kind of jobs?
In the current tech industry boom, the software developer has been elevated to mythic status. But behind every superstar coder is a suite of less glamorous but often crucial jobs: People who test the software, maintain computer systems, fix machines that break down and answer tech support tickets.
"Jobs like quality assurance, entry-level software developers, IT support, [are] going unfilled in numbers that are, frankly, unacceptable," said Plinio Ayala, CEO of Per Scholas, a Bronx nonprofit that trains high school graduates for these kinds of jobs.
Over its 23-year history, Per Scholas has trained 7,500 people. Upon enrolling, its typical student has a household income of $7,000, the organization said. After completing the entry-level IT course, that rises to $35,000, Per Scholas said. Other tracks have higher starting pay, and the nonprofit often partners with tech employers that look to it for help in developing training programs for new hires.
Last year, Per Scholas launched a partnership with General Assembly, a popular for-profit career training school. Dubbed CodeBridge, the partnership taught students the basics of code at Per Scholas before going into GA's 12-week web development program -- all for free. Boykin, who tried two community-college programs in New York but didn't finish either, applied to the program after a friend recommended it. He started on his 23rd birthday.
"I've never been so mentally challenged in my life," he said. "In college, they teach a lot of theory, then you might see a line of code here and there."
Shortly after graduating from CodeBridge, Boykin picked up a couple of part-time jobs: one as a tutor with Codecademy, an online coding school, and another as a teaching assistant at Marymount Manhattan College. He has since been hired as a consulting intern at Rich Relevance, which develops recommendation software for online shopping sites.
Before the Per Scholas partnership, General Assembly largely focused on retraining the college-educated crowd, said CEO Jake Schwartz. The partnership "pushed our thinking about who can and will go through the kinds of programs we can build and deliver." When evaluating its students' performance after training, General Assembly has found no difference between its typical cohorts and those coming from Per Scholas' program, Schwartz said.
Amid computer programmers, one in five doesn't have a bachelor's degree, Brookings found. One-third of systems analysts have less than a bachelor's degree. Among network specialists, the figure is half.
The tight job market has helped those without college degrees. Unemployment among those with bachelor's degrees is at just 2 percent, and many companies are opting to broaden the talent pool they're willing to consider. Calls are mounting for employers to move away from the four-year degree requirement, starting with IBM (IBM) CEO Ginni Rometty, whose open letter to then President-elect Donald Trump two years ago brought the term "new collar jobs" into popular jargon.
"It's a complete bloodbath for talent at the moment," said Andrew Hunter, who co-founded the job-listings company Adzuna. As Brookings put it: "[A]s the current tech boom continues, mid-tech work is beginning to look increasingly like a real opportunity for people with a passion for tech but no college degree."
Per Scholas' Ayala maintains that traditional colleges, which often have large bureaucracies, can't adapt quickly enough to ensure they're teaching students the latest in technology. But more important, gaining enough know-how to be competitive for an entry-level job doesn't require four years, in his view.
As proof, tech companies have often contacted Per Scholas when looking to hire a new entry-level workforce. Last year, Cognizant (CTSH), an IT services company headquartered in nearby New Jersey, asked Per Scholas for help training 650 potential hires, and it committed to hire at least 350. The nonprofit created a program, in partnership with New York's economic development arm, that has enrolled nearly 300 students so far.
Outside New York City, Per Scholas has locations in Dallas, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, and near Washington, D.C. As businesses continue to repatriate jobs from abroad, Ayala believes Cognizant's training could be a national model.
"If you view technology not as a sector but as a function, there are jobs that exist in every part of our economy," he said. "What we're trying to do here is build the new middle class."