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General Assembly: Inside New York City’s New Tech Economy

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Student Lounge at General Assembly in New York City. (Photo: Siemond Chan)

Whatever you do, don’t call General Assembly (GA) a trade school.

Sure, it's a school. And, yes, its curriculum is focused on helping students hone job-ready skills and find work in a tough employment market. But the thing that sets GA apart from its competition, according to CEO and co-founder Jake Schwartz, is that its program is about more than just acquiring job skills. It’s also about career creation.

“What we think about is giving people skills that are directly applicable to their current career aspirations,” he says.

The trouble with trade schools – as well as vocational schools and career training in general – Schwartz says, is there's a stigma there, likely because of the way the U.S. education system is organized, from research universities down to community colleges. It’s unnecessary, he says, and a little self-defeating in today’s challenging job market, to relegate job training that actually translates into work opportunities to a second-tier status. But it’s still the reality we face.

“I almost think that what happened is, over the last 25 years the nature of work has started to shift,” he says, “where skills, even for upper-crust white-collar workers, have become about what can you do and what sort of value can you add. Not just can you write and think and figure out what you need to do. So in that context, skills matter way more.”

Education for employment

And that’s exactly the niche Schwartz and Co. are working to fill with GA, a two-year-old tech training center located in New York City’s Flatiron district. With courses focused on everything from mobile app development, to digital marketing, to user-experience development, GA is preparing students, many of whom are midlife career changers, for life in a rapidly evolving digital economy.

Tuition prices are reasonable – from less than $100 for one-off classes to more than $10,000 for immersive, multi-week development courses – and classes are taught by industry insiders who work full-time at Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Facebook (FB) and other top tech firms. The courses are designed to get students up to speed on the latest technologies and become employable in a matter of weeks.

Compare that to your average college program – four years and thousands of dollars worth of student loan debt – and the appeal of GA’s approach, focused just on the skills that today’s workers need, is clear.

But is it worth it? It's still hard to say. General Assembly says that 97% of its immersive program graduates find new, paid employment within 90 days of graduation. But, since the school itself is only two years old, the model has yet to really prove itself. It is still difficult to find a high-paying, high-potential job in the competitive New York City job market, even in the fast-growing tech space, and whether or not the GA credential makes a difference for graduates remains to be seen.

Jake Schwartz, CEO and co-founder of General Assembly. (Photo: Siemond Chan)

A new economy

General Assembly is part of a larger trend in New York City, as the local economy evolves beyond the traditional anchors of finance, media and fashion to embrace new industries and types of jobs, with a particular focus on tech. That shift has been a focus for outgoing New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself a technology entrepreneur, and has been credited with helping the city emerge from the recent downturn in better economic shape than some other parts of the country. That’s despite 2009 predictions from the New York City Independent Budget Office that the region would likely lag behind the average.

In the past four years tech has emerged as New York’s second-largest employment sector, according to a recent report commissioned by Mayor Bloomberg’s private foundation and assembled by Dr. Michael Mandel, an economist with experience in emerging industries. According to the report, there are now some 262,000 technology workers in New York, accounting for nearly $30 billion in annual local wages. What’s more, the city’s tech/information sector has grown by 11% since 2007, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the city’s overall private-sector growth in that time.

"New York City rapidly reinvented itself as a world-class, urban tech/information hub, uniting tech startups with world-class publishing, media, design, and entertainment companies," Mandel wrote in the September 2013 study. "Now, the New York tech / information sector is a critical engine to the city’s economy, creating thousands of jobs and supporting economic growth across the city.”

Eric Gertler, executive vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, agrees.

“We’re pretty proud of the fact that New York has become now the number two geographical area for most amount of venture capital invested in tech startups,” he says. “We’ve got a huge talent pool of creative, high-level knowledge individuals, and I think that all of that has led to New York becoming an incredibly vibrant tech city.”

Courtney John, mobile UX designer for the Wall Street Journal, at the newsroom of the Wall Street Journal. (Photo: Siemond Chan)

One of those high-level workers is Courtney John, a former Web producer at MTV and a recent graduate of GA’s immersive user experience (UX) course. She now works at the Wall Street Journal as a UX designer for the paper’s mobile apps.

“It’s still really crazy that, you know, I started this in December of last year (at GA), and now it’s October and I have a whole new career,” she says. “But I still love coming in every day and I feel like I’m learning every day.”

Want to learn more? General Assembly is offering a free 30-day trial of its GA Front Row online service complete with access to on-demand classes, live streams, and a video library to Yahoo Finance readers. Click to sign up.