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Pandemic pivot: From bartender to coder with just three months of school

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WATCH ABOVE: The pandemic led many Canadians to reconsider their careers, asking questions like: "Do I have a future in this? Can I back to school for something else?" As Anne Gaviola reports in the Global News series Pandemic Pivot, there are plenty of opportunities in the tech industry – Oct 6, 2021

The earlier phase of the pandemic was a rough ride for Maggie DeVito. The 26-year old Vancouver-based former bartender says she was out of work for months amid repeated restaurant shutdowns and COVID-19 restrictions.

So when her former employer had to temporarily lay her off again after the summer of 2020, she started thinking about a radical career change, she says.

Roughly a year later, DeVito is working as a full-stack developer for a record label, working on the company’s site and building and designing websites for its artists as well.

The job is “super interesting,” she says. “And I get a little sneak peek into the music industry.”

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Her hourly pay has jumped to $25 an hour before tax, a significant increase from the $15-$20 an hour with tips she used to make as a bartender. And unlike her previous job, there is no uncertainty about how much she’ll earn every week.

Even better, DeVito was able to pull off the dramatic professional pivot with just three months of schooling.

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'We've doubled our student base'

Robert Furtado, who heads CourseCompare, a website that compares courses and training programs in a variety of industries, says his staff often hear from prospective job-switchers who assume they’ll need a four-year degree in computer science to land a job in tech.

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“The reality is, if you’re interested in becoming a web developer, for example, you should pursue all avenues,” Furtado says.

These days, that includes free online learning options on YouTube; GitHub, the open-source software development community; and coding boot camps, a new breed of post-secondary school that promises to churn out office-ready IT workers in just a few months.

The latter is what DeVito did, enrolling in a 12-week web-developer course at Lighthouse Labs that started in January. Within a few months of finishing school she landed the job at the record company, she says.

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The shortage of IT workers in Canada, which was already acute before the pandemic, has become even more severe, says Jonathan Ward, president of tech-focused recruiting and staffing agency Ward Technology Talent.

“In the past 20 years, this is the craziest I’ve seen it in terms of the shortage of workers,” he says.

Some companies recruiting for mid- and senior-level positions have had to shorten their hiring cycle to five business days to be able to snatch up in-demand candidates, he says.

And salaries are so competitive that some IT candidates with coveted skills are commanding salaries that are higher than what their own hiring managers make, he adds.

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“The pandemic has clearly accelerated our use of digital technologies for everything from banking to shopping for groceries,” Furtado says. And that has sent companies in virtually every industry scrambling to beef up their IT staff.

Because of the shortage, firms are also more prepared to hire entry-level candidates, Shaki says.

“Beforehand there (were) a lot of companies that (would) still wait to find that one magic person that they (could) find at the price point they (wanted). And now companies are coming up with much better staffing solutions that include retaining and training younger entry-level talent and helping them move forwards,” he says.

Furtado says many large employers in both the private and public sectors have dropped degree requirements for a number of IT positions.

But the pandemic is also drawing more workers to the tech sector.

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At CourseCompare web traffic related to technology careers and courses was up 178 per cent in September 2021 compared to the same month in 2019, according to Furtado.

And enrolments have soared throughout the pandemic at Lighthouse Labs, according to Shaki.

“We’ve doubled our student base since the beginning of 2020,” he says.

Shaki attributes that at least in part to the fact that Lighthouse Labs was quick to establish a COVID-19 Relief Scholarship for workers affected by the job losses linked to the pandemic.

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Since March 2020, the company says it has made $1 million in scholarship funding available to students. Currently, it offers $750 toward its part-time course and $3,000 toward its full-time programs, according to its website. The courses cost up to $13,000 for a full-time, 12-week class.

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DeVito was among those who took advantage of the scholarship, without which she would have had to push back her enrolment to save up, she says.

She was still able to put down $2,000 of her own savings and covered the rest with a government student loan, she says.

Even before going back to school, the pandemic, she says, had forced her to rack up credit card debt.

“I had just paid it off right before COVID,” she says.

Now, though, she makes enough money to get back on track financially.

“I’ve been able to save up,” she says. “I’ve been able to start working on getting out of debt that I acquired throughout COVID and pay off my student loan as well.”

Click to play video: 'Pandemic Pivot: Canadian tech industry draws new workers' Pandemic Pivot: Canadian tech industry draws new workers
Pandemic Pivot: Canadian tech industry draws new workers – Oct 6, 2021

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