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As post-pandemic IT needs rise, Zip Code plans ahead

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A year ago, Zip Code Wilmington was running one of the most popular coding boot camps in the region when COVID-19 upended its in-person instruction model and hiring pipeline.

Although unemployment grew to historic levels, Zip Code Executive Director Desa Burton said she never had a second of doubt that employers would return to hiring for tech roles once concerns began to fade.

“I know what the need is for the software developers in this region,” she said. “What I had a doubt about was how long it was going to last, whether we were going to be around to see it end.”

Burton worked with Zip Code’s board of directors to establish a plan to keep costs low and conserve funding for six to eight months. It also received some grant support from its corporate partners and New Castle County’s Innovation Grant program, as well as utilizing the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. Ultimately, it kept its programs running without furloughing or laying off any staff, Burton noted.

While Zip Code Wilmington is conducting in-person classes, students and teachers are still distanced and wearing masks. PHOTO COURTESY OF ZIP CODE WILMINGTON

Zip Code also benefited from Gov. John Carney’s $10 million Forward Delaware initiative, a CARES Act-funded program to retrain thousands of suddenly unemployed Delaware workers. The program funded enrollment in certification programs that run for 20 weeks or less.

Although Zip Code had already accepted tuition from its October cohort after the program’s announcement, Burton said that state officials worked with the nonprofit to reimburse eligible students, with that investment totaling $474,000.

“We had a furloughed airline stewardess and chef among others from distressed industries,” she said.

While Zip Code’s obvious tech focus gave it an edge in jumping to fully remote instruction last year, Burton noted that there has been a change for the program’s typical in-person teaching.

“I think in the beginning the instructors were concerned about the cohorts coming together and working cohesively, and the student students feeling comfortable and retaining information,” she said. “We found through the last six or seven cohorts now that it’s been just fine. The students gel together because they’re online with each other most of the day.”

Zip Code has decreased the size of its cohorts through the pandemic, dropping from upward of 35 students to around anywhere from six to 15 students. Burton explained that Zip Code tries to only take on as many students as it believes it can place in jobs after graduation, and during the worst of the pandemic’s impact that hiring pipeline dried up.

“We had a lot of people who were still looking for jobs and so I didn’t want to train a bunch of people and have them take time off of work, lose their insurance, all those types of things, and then not be able to find a job very quickly,” she said, noting that Zip Code’s hallmark has been its high placement rate for grads.

Throughout the pandemic, Burton said her team was in consistent communication with employers around the region about their needs to tailor cohort sizes and try to place graduates as quickly as possible.

Zip Code has partnered with a number of corporate employers, including Bank of America, Barclays Bank, Capital One, CSC, Comcast, M&T Bank, Vanguard, WSFS Bank, and more. By far its largest landing spot for grads is JPMorgan Chase, which has hired more than 200 technologists from its programs since 2015 including 30 last year.

Zip Code Wilmington’s JAVA cohort poses on Zoom for a virtual graduation photo. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ZIP CODE WILMINGTON

Burton said the nonprofit is hearing from even more potential partners now, in part because of the post-pandemic need to catch up with an influx of work, but also because of greater investment in diversity efforts. The technology sector has historically not been very diverse, but Zip Code is among a number of new programs seeking to train people of color for its jobs today.

“We’re getting a lot of calls from major companies that are looking at their numbers and seeing they haven’t moved the needle in years. They just need to start making some progress,” Burton said.

Last year, Zip Code leaders met to strategize how to continue making connections with diverse candidates as well as how to attract more interest from Delawareans. Over the years, cohorts range from majority locals to majority out-of-staters, or split nealy in half.

“We have people that come to Zip Code from Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, etc. People will get in a car with everything they own and drive here for Zip Code. But there are folks that probably live three or four blocks from our physical office that have never heard of us,” Burton said.

Nearly all of its applicants hear about the program via word of mouth, so Burton said that Zip Code needed to make a conscious effort to expand who was hearing about its opportunities. They recently started working with the YWCA of Delaware, the Latin American Community Center and DeTV in Wilmington to get the word out.

“We’re doing a lot of things we hadn’t done in the past,” she said. “We’ve historically had a consistent representation of 30% African-American and Latinx students since the doors opened, but I think we can do better than that.”

When asked about Zip Code’s short-term goals, Burton said that the school is focused on being a part of Delaware’s economic development engine. A goal that is quite literally written into its mission statement.

“I had a call with Gov. Carney recently where I pointed our mission out to him, and I let him know that although we are not a state department or agency or anything like that, we are definitely a tool that he has in his back pocket to use to help move the state forward,” she said, noting that could include utilizing Zip Code interns to help crunch state data that would be useful to workforce training or attraction, or helping to write a digital literacy standard that would provide a foundation for the region’s various training programs, among other ideas. 

By Jacob Owens


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