After a 2016 which saw massive numbers of workers being let go, Singapore’s economy is facing a different challenge in 2017: businesses here are currently staring down a 30,000-employee shortfall in IT and tech positions. These positions are not just limited to more classically IT-oriented industries; because of the pervasiveness of technology in our day-to-day lives, employers in diverse fields such as finance, tourism, and marketing need capable people with knowledge in coding, user experience/interface creation, and web design. That’s a lot of gaps to fill, but what’s more, they’re important gaps, what with Singapore seeking to fulfil its “Smart City” vision.

But where are those IT professionals going to come from?

The New Players in Education

While playing an important role in the broader educational mix, universities simply aren’t turning out tech graduates at a rate high enough to cope with this demand. Furthermore, while traditional tertiary institutions can provide a very thorough grounding in IT, often their syllabi aren’t able to keep up with the almost constant technological changes that have become a defining feature of the present-day tech industry. This is where the much maligned tech bootcamp comes into play.

The term “bootcamp” is not necessarily a hard and fast definition, but rather, it’s a broad concept, and encompasses a range of institutions, groups, and service providers that offer training in any number of things, be it physical fitness, music, or design and coding. The term originates from the military, and tends to denote a period of hard, intensive training in order to achieve certain goals.

The Problems with Bootcamps…

As a basic premise, it seems fine – you work hard, you get rapid returns – but the industry does, unfortunately, have issues with both quality control, and expectation management. In a prominent example of this, Coding House, a tech bootcamp in the United States, was fined and shut down at the end of last year, after California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education found that the school had made overblown claims about employment rates amongst graduates. These are charges that have been levelled at other players in the industry, which results in a whole lot of worthwhile operators getting unfairly tarred.

As a basic premise, it seems fine – you work hard, you get rapid returns – but the industry does, unfortunately, have issues with both quality control, and expectation management.

Reckless overpromising like this does nothing to help temper the expectations of students, who may already have the idea in their head that bootcamps are a silver bullet for employment. They’re not, in much the same way that attending an eight-week fitness bootcamp doesn’t mean you’ll automatically go from 140kg to 70kg. Furthermore, because of the lack of regulation in the industry, virtually anyone can start one up, which can result in a lack of quality control over instructors, as well as an approach to enrollment which emphasises quantity over quality. Furthermore, educational outcomes vary widely across institutions: some will simply engage rote learning, while others offer a more holistic approach that incorporates practical projects and cross-discipline learning.

When done correctly, though, bootcamps can provide a highly focused, immersive environment, and can be a great way to rapidly complement existing skills, or to make your first forays into the world of tech. However, regardless of what your objectives are, a bootcamp needs to be attended in conjunction with a sense of motivation, and some kind of a goal in mind. The old university adage of “Ps get degrees” isn’t going to cut it in this environment.

How Do We Fix the Coding Bootcamp?

Firstly, students should be wary of any school that guarantees employment, or trumpets unaudited or unverifiable employment figures for graduates. This is (partly) what Coding House got in trouble for, and is a pretty sure sign that you’re not dealing with a legitimate institution. Coding bootcamps need to stop operating as these isolated “educational islands”, and instead, partner with governments, businesses, and other educational institutions. This helps to reinforce the legitimacy of their offering, while also holding them to account (particularly when their offering is tied to a governmental organisation). Finally, bootcamps need to focus less on getting everyone through the door, and more on getting the right people into their courses. Given the high intensity learning environment of bootcamps, it’s counterproductive to enroll people that aren’t totally committed to what they’re doing; further, those lacking motivation can adversely affect the efforts of other students. These are not particularly earth-shattering suggestions, but in an industry which has become infected by snake-oil salesmen, it’s important that legitimate operators take measures to set themselves apart from the pack.

… bootcamps need to focus less on getting everyone through the door, and more on getting the right people into their courses.

This is what I mean when I say tech bootcamps are both the problem, and the solution: despite the industry suffering under the weight of some bad apples, they play a vital part in the modern education landscape.

If Singapore is going to become the Smart City that it wants to be, it needs skilled people, and it needs them fast. Bootcamps are not the whole answer, but they certainly form a large part of it.