These people needed new careers. They found them at coding boot camps
Alejandro Calzadilla, 36, worked as a freelance professional cellist in Quebec City for over a decade, frequently playing with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra and offering cello lessons.
But when public health restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 dried up all his work in early 2020, Calzadilla decided it was time to "reinvent" himself.
He had been attracted to the technology sector for a while — coding seemed creative, he said — and decided to take the plunge in October 2020 when he began a nine-week intensive web development boot camp with Le Wagon, based in Montreal.
A few months after completing the program, he landed a job as a software developer with Zilia, a Quebec medical technology company.
He said the switch was definitely worth it.
"I do miss playing concerts regularly, but coding consumes a lot of my time and it's very fulfilling," he said.
"I do play music, but I do it for myself."
Boom in coding boot camps
Like Calzadilla, an estimated 24 per cent of working people in Canada have considered changing jobs or careers due to the pandemic, according to a report by HR company LifeWorks, formerly Morneau Shepell. Companies that run online boot camps training people looking to "re-skill" for a job in the tech industry say they have seen a significant increase in people interested in their courses.
The schools, which charge between $8,500 and $10,500 for their full-time programs, don't require that applicants have a background in computer science.
Instead, the schools start from scratch, plunging students who make it past the application process into a whirlwind of lectures and group work, all with the promise of being employable by the end of the courses.
Lighthouse Labs, which offers tech boot camps across Canada, has seen a 45 to 50 per cent increase in applicants since summer 2020, according to CEO and co-founder Jeremy Shaki. Vancouver-based CodeCore College, which also offers tech boot camps, saw its class sizes increase 25 per cent since fall 2020, said operations manager Miranda Kennedy Smith.
Marie-Gabrielle Ayoub, co-founder of Le Wagon's Montreal campus, said its boot camps have been receiving more applications from workers in sectors that were most impacted by the pandemic, like the arts, culture, tourism and service industries.
"Our students have always been very diverse, but we didn't have musicians or restaurant workers training in the boot camp before the pandemic," she said.
Meghan Hein, a server and bartender at two downtown Toronto restaurants, also made the switch to tech after losing her job to the pandemic.
"I didn't have a lot of savings to fall back on, so it was all pretty stressful," Hein said.
"I was worried about how I was going to support myself, because I didn't know if I was going to be able to go back to those restaurants any time soon."
She said she was introduced to the tech world by her brother who owns a software development company.
Hein found an online coding boot camp with Lighthouse Labs, and she enrolled. Three months later, she'd completed the course and secured a job at a tech start-up with the help of the school's career services.
"The learning curve to jump into a new industry was obviously quite steep, but it's been really rewarding," she said.
"I feel like I have a lot more job security now."
Taq Bandhal, a recruiter with BIPOC Executive Search, said she has seen more people with arts backgrounds applying for tech jobs.
She said many people are lured to tech jobs because of the high salaries.
"They are some of the highest-paying jobs, even at the junior levels, and everyone's hiring for them," said Bandhal.
The median pay for a web developer in Canada as of November 2021 is $30 per hour, and for a data analyst it's $37.50 per hour, according to data from the Government of Canada's job bank. Bandhal said these jobs usually include generous benefits.
Bandhal said people with non-scientific backgrounds who complete short-term courses like boot camps are very employable, although some companies still require a bachelor of science degree.
Increasing popularity of short-term programs
Bandhal said she's seeing more people are turning to short-term programs or certifications to further their careers, noting that many people don't want to leave the workforce for three to four years in order to complete a degree.
Kelowna resident Russell Yearwood is one of those who chose a short-term boot camp over a degree.
The 28-year-old enrolled in a 12-week data science boot camp with Lighthouse Labs in January 2021, after dropping out of his bioinformatics undergraduate program at Langara College after three years. He now works as a private technical consultant on data science projects.
He had already been struggling to learn in an academic setting, but said switching to remote learning during the pandemic was the breaking point for him.
Although his boot camp was also remote, Yearwood said he excelled because the work was more project-based and hands on.
Yearwood said despite the boot camp's hefty price tag, it cost less than his university's tuition fees for a full degree.
But Gary Hepburn, dean of Ryerson University's G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, said some students might not perform as well in the fast-paced learning environment many boot camps offer.
"Students should consider their own learning styles and their ability to deeply engage with a topic over a short, intense training period," said Gary Hepburn in an emailed statement.
"It is important that students recognize that compressed learning periods have their own limitations in terms of the types of content that can be taught, the depth of engagement with that content ...."
Hepburn said universities provide more "credibility," "recognition" and "in-depth" learning than boot camps, which he said puts graduates at a significant advantage when looking for a job.
He said Ryerson also offers shorter programs and intensive courses and that "universities have rigorous approval processes and quality assurance oversight for all programming."
Tech jobs more 'pandemic-proof'
According to Viet Vu, a senior economist who studies tech workers at Ryerson University's Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Toronto, jobs in the technology sector proved to be a lot more resilient than most other jobs at the start of the pandemic.
"Even though we were seeing job declines across many different sectors towards the early days of the pandemic, tech jobs really weren't that affected in employment declines," said Vu.
Numbers from Canada's Labour Force Survey show that in December 2019, there were around 1 million tech workers in Canada compared to around 19.1 million total workers in the country.
By December 2021, the number of tech jobs had increased by 19 per cent for a total of 1.2 million, while the total number of workers in Canada increased by one per cent for a total of 19.3 million.
Vu said the demand for tech workers has gone up as businesses and people increasingly rely on digital technology. Canada is facing a skills gap in highly technical jobs, such as web development, Vu said, and is losing many of its tech workers to the U.S. where salaries are higher.