The EvoLLLution | Boot Camps Help to Kick Start Careers
Originally intended to be a loss leader, boot camps have become so popular among working professionals that these extremely short courses are taking on a life of their own.

By nature, I am an optimistic person. This is a good thing because I work in the continuing studies department of a large urban postsecondary education (PSE) institution that, as with all PSE institutions, is on the cusp of big changes and challenges.

According to Statistics Canada, 65 percent of Canadians aged 25 to 64 have completed PSE yet the number of university graduates who are unemployed or underemployed is growing. Grads face dwindling access to full-time work, large student loans and, increasingly, the realization that an undergraduate degree is not “practical” enough to secure a job.

Traditional multi-month and year PSE programs have been slow in facing the problem. A 2014 McKinsey study found that, although 70 percent of PSE institutions thought they were adequately preparing grads for the job market, only 38 percent of grads and only 35 percent of employees agreed.

The perception of the value of a degree has soured with another important market: graduates’ parents. One recent study of grads and their parents from 14 countries found that a decade ago 68 percent of parents thought an undergraduate degree was a good investment in their children’s future. Ten years later only 44 percent of parents are so sure.

But I’m optimistic that university continuing studies departments can continue to play an important role in providing flexible, practical training to grads and adults wishing to upgrade their skills.

In fact, the timing couldn’t be better for continuing studies to take on an increasing role in delivering work-specific training.

At a time when workers and grads need to increase and upgrade their practical skills, there is a growing shortage of skilled workers, such as in the booming high tech sector scrambling to find workers with the right skills.

The rapid changes in software development, social media and digital communications are presenting a challenge to the traditional PSE teaching model. As one tech company executive put it at a recent conference: “There are many techniques that will be obsolete by the time a [multi-month or year] curriculum for them is finalized, taught and used by its graduates.”

PSE grads are looking for fast track “finishing school” training to give them current job-specific skills. Workers are seeking upgraded skills in a rapidly evolving workplace. According to research commissioned by The EvoLLLution, 70 percent of employers believe that employees need to continue learning simply to keep up with the demands of their jobs.

Continuing studies departments are ideally positioned to identify, develop and deliver innovative and flexible training to meet the needs of these students.

In the CS department at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, we offer more than 36 programs and 300 courses to nearly 20,000 students each year. Programs can take between 18 and 12 months to develop, courses can be identified and developed in as little as six months. But even this model wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the incredible pace of new digital skills.

What we needed was a one-day, skill-specific workshop, which we call boot camps in reference to intensive sports and military training programs.

Last year we developed half a dozen one-day boot camps and they proved very popular. We added another dozen camps and then another. This year SFU CS will offer more than 50 boot camps that focus on specific skills training.

The boot camps (or “boots”), which run during the daytime on Saturdays throughout the year, are developed and taught by industry experts. We can now identify, develop and deliver a boot camp in as little as three weeks.

Our current roster includes boots on everything from content strategy, how to raise money and Mail Chimp to social media for small business, personal productivity and writing better reports.

Priced at just $159, the full-day boots attract between 25 and 75 registrants. Because the boots are low cost, we avoid expensive computer lab rental costs by requiring participants to bring in their own laptop or tablet. Instructors are paid a flat day rate and they play a major role in promoting their boots via social media.

If a boot camp attracts less than 12 students we cancel it. Currently we have a go/no go rate of 75 percent/25 percent.

When first introduced last year one of the early intentions was to offer low-cost boot camps as a “loss leader” to attract students into longer courses. Interestingly, the boots have proven so popular that the profit from them often exceeds the profit of the courses they were designed to promote.

Boot Camps are just one example of the new skills training approaches CS departments can develop for the 21st century PSE student. If we don’t move fast enough to develop the job-specific skills our students demand they will simply go elsewhere for this training, posing a significant risk to our most profitable programs and courses.

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