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High-tech apprentice program expands

Mar. 27, 2014 - 01:39PM   |  
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ST. LOUIS — Cody Beck slogged through four years of classes at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, a psychology major who didn’t want to treat patients, a budding entrepreneur with an affinity for business but no desire for the button-down world of business school.

Two years later, the 24-year-old Missouri native’s résumé includes a stint with a startup in Dublin and a starring role in a new high-tech apprentice program envisioned as a career-boosting alternative to the four-year college degree.

“Now when I talk to people, I don’t ever mention my degree. I tell them what I’ve done,” he said. “That seems to matter to them way more than my grade-point average.”

On Wednesday, Beck hobnobbed with local business heavyweights and a dozen Wall Street venture capitalists at the Midwest unveiling of Enstitute. The New York-based nonprofit hopes to match as many as 100 college students — or other millennials who opted out of higher education — with mentors from the local business community, with an emphasis on one- and two-year jobs in science, technology and digital media. The company touts that 90 percent of its initial crop of New York participants either landed full-time jobs paying at least $55,000 annually or started their own companies. The effort has since expanded to Washington since its 2012 rollout.

“We don’t think college is wrong,” said co-founder Shaila Ittycheria. “But it was never meant for everyone. And it wasn’t meant for everyone at the age of 18.”

Enstitute hopes to grow into “the first national apprenticeship program for 21st-century careers,” co-founder Kane Sarhan told the St. Louis audience. While its efforts so far remain modest, the organization has attracted some boldface names in the local business community, including Build-A-Bear Workshop founder Maxine Clark, who serves on Enstitute’s local board of directors; and Tom Hillman, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who is now a managing partner at FLT Capital, a private equity firm.

“The most significant bridge [in higher education] is with practicum — what’s learned outside the classroom,” said Hillman, a Washington University graduate who serves on the school’s board of trustees.

Clark, the retired CEO of the teddy bear retailer, compared Enstitute’s role in shaping future business leaders to Teach for America, on whose board she sits.

“There’s some really bright young talent who could be engaged in business” but instead pursue creative pursuits such as art or dance, she said.

While college graduates as a whole continue to substantially out-earn their peers without degrees over a lifetime, the notion of a four-year degree as the ticket to prosperity is no longer a given — an opening Ittycheria and her allies are eager to exploit.

“We’ve tied it to this American dream,” she said, referring to the notion of college as an expected rite of passage. “But people are seeing that this model, and this norm, aren’t working.”

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