Thirty-five students from 13 Louisville area high schools this month began spending parts of their weekday afternoons in a new training program at software development company Interapt to learn about coding to prepare them for careers in technology.
Leaders from Kentucky’s public and private sectors, including the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, last week said that they hoped the program, called Interapt Skills, sparks an interest in technology among the high school juniors and seniors and eventually helps local high-tech employers find more talented employees in a tight labor market.
The company and its partners last week showcased Interapt Skills as the state’s first information technology apprenticeship program.
The $1 million effort, a large portion of which is startup costs, is funded in part by JCPS but primarily through private dollars. Interapt CEO Ankur Gopal told Insider that he hoped the Louisville effort would serve as a “proof-of-concept” so that the program can be replicated in other communities and eventually generate a profit for the company. He said Interapt had fielded inquiries from other schools in Kentucky and other states.
Every weekday, the 35 students, including 25 from Jefferson County Public Schools, travel by bus to the Interapt training center on River Road to learn technical skills, such as programming for Google and Apple operating systems; business skills, including showing up on time and working in a team; and life skills, including personal budgeting.
Gopal told Insider that Interapt, like most tech companies, is struggling to find enough tech talent with the right skills and that training local students can help address that challenge while at the same time getting youth interested in a career path they previously may not have considered.
“We realized that as technology kept getting more democratized and easier to use, we can teach it … in a lot of different ways. And this is one of those ways,” Gopal said.
“We have a lot of great people here that we can skill up,” he said. “We believe that we can put people on a pathway that gives them just another opportunity to achieve their full potential.”
David Klaphaak, Interapt’s director of program management, told Insider that the company’s team selected the 35 junior and senior participants from 86 applicants after interviewing them online. He said the team tried to gauge the students’ aptitude and interests in part by prompting them to talk about an app they use frequently.
Training will take place over four months, after which graduates can apply to join local businesses, including Humana, ResCare and Texas Roadhouse for apprenticeships to further their skills.
JCPS said it agreed to participate because the program gives students “hands-on experience in a setting that brings classroom learning to life.”
The district is paying about $100,000 for the training. The bulk of the program’s cost is paid by private donors.
The nonprofit Transform Education Kentucky is implementing the program and working to get additional support from businesses, both to provide funding and hiring opportunities for the students.
Barbara Bellissimo, the nonprofit’s chief executive, said the program fit nicely into the nonprofit’s mission to identify and pilot transformational tools and practices across the public education system.
Interapt Skills engages students by having them work in real teams to do real coding work, she said.
The students can use the lessons they learn as a platform for further education or to get jobs in a growing field, while at the same time helping employers find skilled employees, she said.
“This is something that’s needed, that’s wanted,” Bellissimo said.
Terry Gill, secretary for the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, said the state’s growth in the last two years had helped lots of Kentuckians find jobs — but also had put significant pressures on the labor market.
Last year, Kentucky secured investments of about $9.2 billion and added about 17,000 jobs, he said.
“The trajectory we’re on right now is remarkable, and I think the only thing that could potentially hold us back is that we can’t find the bodies we need to take advantage of the careers and the positions that we’re creating,” Gill said.
Brook Smith, owner of Louisville-based surety bond company Smith Manus, provided $500,000 for the effort in part because he sees the needs of local employers and of high school seniors who may not have any idea about their careers only months before graduation.
He encouraged others in the local business community step up and help fund the effort.
“Let’s support the risk takers,” he said. “Let’s give these kids a chance.”
Beyond the potential business and economic benefits, Interapt Skills, for Gopal, also represents a way for Kentuckians to battle prejudices from techies in Silicon Valley.
About two years ago, Gopal gave a presentation at a software conference in San Francisco when one of the attendees told him, “I can’t believe you’re from Kentucky.”
It was a backhanded compliment, Gopal said, because the attendee meant that he was surprised to hear Gopal, born in Owensboro, say something technical that was insightful.
“That bothered me,” Gopal said, especially because he has seen people graduate from high schools in Kentucky to start startups and sell them to global players such as Google and Yahoo.
“There’s not reason that you can’t do that do that here,” he said. “That’s one of the driving forces of why I get up in the morning because I feel that we have the capability. We have the intellect.”
CLARIFICATION: This story was updated to provide more details about the graduates’ path to join local employers.