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Published: Jun 16, 2016
Job skills programs aim to make liberal-arts grads workforce-ready.
Zia Soleil—Getty Images

There's no one-size-fits-all description of boot camps. Some are offered by private companies; others in partnership with colleges. Some run for two weeks; others for three months. And perhaps most obviously, the content ranges from computer science to business.

That makes comparing them somewhat difficult, even though they do share similarities in their differences from traditional higher education.

Level, a new two-month boot camp from Northeastern University, that focuses on data analytics can be an alternative to a full graduate degree program. The goal in coming years is to offer programming in a similar format in a variety of disciplines, including engineering, health, and liberal arts, says Nick Ducoff, vice president for new ventures at Northeastern.

For now, though, most available programs fall into one of three broad buckets: coding and computer boot camps, business accelerators, and professional prep programs.

Here's what you can expect from each:

Coding Schools

The best known of the boot camp genre, coding programs have grown exponentially in the past few years. Some of that growth is from mid-career changers. But there’s also a healthy enrollment subset from recent college graduates looking to add valuable coding and data science skills to their resumes.

These programs have the most tangible outcomes; they’re tied very closely with high-paying, in-demand jobs, and you should come out of one with a portfolio that demonstrates your new abilities.

“It’s not just about learning new skills, it’s about learning a certain skill set to get a particular job,” says Ben Deda, chief operating officer of Galvanize.

Boot camp officials recommend you know what type of job you want before enrolling, especially for full-time, immersive programs that run for several weeks. If you’re unsure, start by dipping you toe in the water with free online coding classes from a provider such as Code Academy. Many boot camps also host info sessions for prospective students that will give you an idea of the level you should be at before enrolling.

With such a dramatic growth in graduates, some observers have questioned whether the coding boot camp bubble is about to burst—that is, whether the job market will get so flooded with entry-level coders that the skills won’t be in demand any longer. Rick O’Donnell, CEO of Skills Fund, doesn’t think that’s a concern. Coding boot camp grads may not find jobs with the start-ups and tech companies we think of when we picture coders, O'Donnell says, but there’s a huge demand for coders throughout the economy, from finance to auto to health care industries.

Data from Burning Glass backs up O’Donnell’s confidence. In an analysis of job listings, the company found a substantial number of jobs that weren’t primarily about coding but still valued coding skills. In fact, 50% of jobs in the top income quartile valued coding skills, compared with 3% and 10% of jobs in the second- and third-income quartiles.

Business Accelerators

Students who stand to benefit most from business-focused programs are usually liberal arts students who don’t have the opportunity to take many business courses during the regular academic year. These students may not have access to an on-campus consulting or finance club, for example, and they often come from smaller liberal arts schools where major business firms don’t visit to recruit, says Greg Harvey, director of Vanderbilt’s summer business accelerator.

Summer business programs for non-business majors have been around for nearly 20 years at a handful of universities, such as Dartmouth and Villanova. But the number of programs grew in the early 2000s, and enrollment jumped during the Great Recession, when liberal arts students were most concerned about their job prospects.

Like coding programs, different business programs serve different purposes, so you’ll need to decide what you want to get out of the program before you apply.

Villanova’s Summer Business Institute, for example, covers the same curriculum as the university’s regular business minor in a condensed timeline, and students who complete the program receive a minor. The 10-week program is more than twice the length of most summer business programs and provides a basic knowledge of accounting, finance, and economics. Brenda Stover, executive director of professional development at Villanova, calls it “learning the language of business.” The program has a strong academic focus, and it’s almost entirely classroom-based.

Vanderbilt’s program, on the other hand, is more focused on team projects, taking the idea of case studies to the next level. Each summer, students work on five business problems for five different companies, so the program could be ideal for a student looking for firsthand corporate experience.

“I hear from accelerator students over and over again that they feel comfortable walking in to any interview after presenting in front of executives at Nissan, Wrigley, or Coca-Cola,” Harvey says.

While most summer business programs are open to seniors, Harvey and Stover both recommend participating earlier in college, to give students some direction and a leg up when applying for internships as a junior or senior.

More recently, some colleges have begun offering shorter, more narrow business programs. Colgate University and College of Holy Cross, for example, both started week-long entrepreneurial programs aimed at students interested in running a business or working at a start-up. (Colgate partnered with General Assembly to design a new program, while Holy Cross brought outside provider Fullbridge on campus.)

Nam Nguyen, who just finished his second year studying mathematical economics and computer science at Colgate, never pictured himself as an entrepreneur, but he thought entrepreneurial skills would be helpful in a variety of jobs, he said. The Colgate program includes class instruction, visits to businesses in New York City, and a group project where teams design a product. Nguyen’s team devised an app that would serve as a central place to promote and organize social events on college campuses.

“The most helpful thing was pitching our ideas at the end (to real investors),” Nguyen said. “We had to anticipate what kinds of questions investors would have.”

Job Skills

A recent analysis by Burning Glass found that a third of the skills employers seek in job postings are foundational skills that aren’t specific to a certain industry. So programs that enable students to develop and prove they have such foundational skills can be valuable, particularly for students who haven’t had much work experience.

That’s the market that Koru and other job-training programs aim to fill. As part of its three-week program, participants are immersed at a company to see day-to-day operations. Almost three-quarters of Koru students earned non-applied degrees, or degrees that aren’t tied to a specific job. That includes the traditional liberal arts, as well as areas like biology.

Koru doesn’t guarantee job placement, but it does offer some job coaching and connects participants with hiring companies. About 88% of participants find jobs shortly after graduation.

Koru and the other boot camps in this article aren’t open access, and at some of the most popular and well-regarded programs, less than a quarter of applicants are accepted. That means their impressive outcomes may be due in part to enrolling only the type of people likely to succeed. Koru is at least upfront about this: It screens applicants for seven traits that it says predict strong job performance.

Best college education image

Earlham College officials saw a few advantages to becoming one of Koru's college partners, says Jennifer Banning, director of career education at Earlham. Most obviously, it’s an opportunity for soon-to-be grads to get their foot in the door at some high-growth companies, Banning says.

But what’s perhaps more helpful, is how it connects the dots, both for students and hiring employers, as Earlham hopes a new on-campus job skills program it will offer through Fullbridge will do. These programs show companies that liberal arts grads are workforce ready, and they help students realize they have the skills to succeed in business, she says. “They’re better able to understand themselves in terms of what they’re capable of and how college has prepared them.”