Jim McKelvey, a St. Louis native and the co-founder of San Francisco-based mobile payments company Square, believes a new apprenticeship program can help his hometown fill a significant gap in its tech landscape.
McKelvey and his Square co-founder Jack Dorsey, also a St. Louis native, started the company in their hometown in 2009, but the relative lack of resources for tech companies and shortage of talented programmers in the area forced Square west to San Francisco.
Today, in addition to his role at Square, McKelvey is a general partner in St. Louis venture capital firm Cultivation Capital and the managing director of SixThirty, an accelerator program for financial tech startups. But the lack of programmers in the area still remains an issue.
That’s why, four months ago, instead of just offering a coding class in St. Louis as he’d been planning, McKelvey decided to go bigger with LaunchCode.
McKelvey was in Columbia on Thursday to promote his newest endeavor, which places programmers with basic coding knowledge alongside experienced professionals at one of 100 different St. Louis companies. Participating companies range from giants like Monsanto and Express Scripts to software startup TrakBill, and McKelvey said there’s a waiting list of at least 30 more companies that want to participate in LaunchCode.
The apprentices are paid $15 an hour by the companies during their stay in the program, but McKelvey says their skills become much sharper much more quickly working alongside a professional than they would otherwise. And, the thinking goes, the potential to get a job as a result of those improvements makes up for a few months of marginal pay. “We can provide the easiest access to the best choice of careers,” he said.
McKelvey spoke to a host of students and faculty Thursday afternoon at the Reynolds Journalism Institute on the campus of the University of Missouri and had a Friday appearance scheduled at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. At both schools, he aimed to spread the word about the program to students who could be looking for jobs in programming fields in the next few years. At the Reynolds Journalism Institute, he emphasized the importance of being able “to build something,” and the ease and advantages of getting into a field that has extremely high demand at present.
Not a single company has turned down the opportunity to participate in LaunchCode, McKelvey said, and the program can place almost anyone with basic knowledge of coding, from a former Walmart employee to a man with narcolepsy. Apprentices have been offered jobs in as little as two days. “There are very few careers that offer this much access so early in your career,” McKelvey told members of Columbia’s tech startup community at another event Thursday at Hackton, a Columbia programming co-working space.
Besides being beneficial for programmers, McKelvey said, LaunchCode can help St. Louis by creating a surplus of tech talent in the region. That can help the area draw new companies from elsewhere and retain promising companies, like Square, that start in St. Louis. “If we are successful with LaunchCode, and create the sort of growth in the ecosystem, companies would be stupid not to move here,” McKelvey said.
LaunchCode is currently only affiliated with St. Louis companies, which McKelvey said was simply because it’s his hometown. However, he said that once LaunchCode’s model is perfected in St. Louis, it could be successful anywhere in the world because the demand for programming talent is simply that high.