Coding academy graduates seek new jobs and higher salaries

About a year ago, David Zemola heard about an interesting opportunity that he couldn’t pass up.

The 41-year-old aircraft mechanic from Columbus Air Force Base worked 13 years in this field. But after his stepson told him about a program where he could become a certified coder, he signed up. This could lead to more money, he thought, as well as more time to spend with his wife and six children.

“I decided, ‘Okay, let me try,’ because at that time I was trying to teach myself how to program over the internet,” Zemola said.

On Friday afternoon, Zemola was one of five graduates from the Mississippi Coding Academy honored in a ceremony at the East Mississippi Community College Communiversity west of Columbus. About 60 graduates from across the state this year, with ceremonies also in Jackson and Biloxi, said MCA founder and co-chair Mike Forster.

MCA offers an 11-month tuition-free course for adults who have a high school diploma. The course can be taken online and in person according to the MCA website. It teaches students how to code for websites, online applications, and software development from the presentation layer that people see when loading an application or website, to code maintenance technology uses to work, instructor Jessika Hayes told The Dispatch.

Along with teaching students to code, the program also works with local businesses to provide an internship experience and workshops for students to learn about the different types of jobs available after graduation.

“One of the key elements of our approach is that we work closely with business people who are potential employers and have needs,” Forster said.

One such company is AvidXchange, an automatic payment automation software company that develops programs to automate bill management and payment. Others include PACCAR in Lowndes County and Babel Street, a data interpretation company with an innovation center in Starkville.

Babel Street and AvidXchange have hired former MCA graduates as coders, Forster said.

MCA graduates can expect to earn more than $38,000 a year entering the workforce, Forster said. Some graduates earn up to $60,000.

MCA began in 2017 with locations in Jackson and the Columbus City School District’s Brandon Central Services Building. An academy in Biloxi was later added, and in 2021 the local academy moved to the Communiversity.

To attract students, MCA instructors and advocates work with local high schools to attract students who do not wish to pursue a traditional college education after graduation. Although the course is free, students must apply and interview before being enrolled.

Funding and support for the academies comes from private investments and affiliations with Mississippi State University, the University of Southern Mississippi, the Mississippi Development Authority and the Kellogg Foundation, the Mississippi Investment Board, as well as several other partners. Forster said there was a collective investment of around $2 million.

When the program started in 2017, it operated on a budget of around $250,000. That amount has now grown to about $1 million spread across its three campuses, he said.

At the graduation ceremony, EMCC President Scott Alsobrooks spoke enthusiastically to the graduates about their addition to the Golden Triangle workforce.

“Let’s go out and do new things. Let’s do some more magic,” Alsobrooks said. “We are thrilled to see you today graduating with the certificate you earned.”

Prospective students register for the course through the MCA website. Candidates also go through an interview and a “boot camp,” which is a one- to two-week session where instructors and students get to know each other. The next course starts on August 15; applications are still open.

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