The Real Reasons Behind the Tech Skills Gap

April 27, 2016, 5:00 AM UTC
The skills gap

It didn’t attract nearly the same headlines as Donald Trump defending his hand size or the heated Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Mich. – in fact, it was mostly a local story – but political news out of Florida in March felt like a watershed moment for an issue that has stayed under the radar for too long.

The issue is the teaching of computer science in high schools – or the lack thereof – and how we’re squandering opportunities to better prepare students for an increasingly tech-centric job market.

In Florida, the state Senate in February overwhelmingly approved a first-of-its-kind proposal to allow computer coding to fulfill a foreign language requirement in high school. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeremy Ring, a former Yahoo executive, contended that in a competitive job market, computer skills are as important as speaking another language and that computer coding is a skill more aligned with liberal arts than math or science.

Though the legislation ultimately failed a few weeks later after going nowhere in the Florida House, the bill’s momentum, albeit brief, cast a welcome spotlight on the astonishing lack of computer science in high school curricula and has given hope to those of us who feel creative approaches to address the problem are overdue.

Numbers tell the story of a painful contradiction: The United States needs many more tech workers, but schools aren’t providing enough training to meet the requirement.

  • Nine in 10 parents want their child to study computer science, but only one in four schools teach computer programming, according to the organization behind Computer Science Education Week, an annual program dedicated to inspiring K-12 students to take interest in computer science.
  • There are currently 607,708 open computing jobs nationwide, but only 42,969 computer science students graduated into the workforce last year, says org, a non-profit dedicated to expanding access to computer science.
  • By 2018, 51% of all Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) jobs are projected to be in computer science-related fields, according to the White House. The federal government alone needs an additional 10,000 IT and cybersecurity professionals, and the private sector needs many more. “Computer science is not only important for the tech sector,” says a White House fact sheet, “but also for a growing number of industries, including transportation, healthcare, education, and financial services, that are using software to transform their products and services. In fact, more than two-thirds of all tech jobs are outside the tech sector.”
  • And, women and minorities are woefully underrepresented in computer science education (and the computer science field in general). In the fewer than 15 percent of all high schools that offered any advanced placement computer science courses in 2015, only 22% of those who took the exam were girls and only 13% were African-American or Latino students.

It wasn’t always this way. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, many high schools offered classes in computer programming (such as it was back in the day). But, despite a trend in recent years to provide more college-level courses in high schools, computer science has moved in the opposite direction.

I was shocked to discover that my own three daughters living in a suburb of Minneapolis had precious few options to take computer programming classes. While most schools offer classes on using computers or designing web sites, very few offer an introduction to computer programming — and you can forget about advanced programming courses. Despite being the children of an old programmer, I think the lack of courses played a role in my daughters’ lack of desire to learn how to code. As we all know, exposure and access is a critical component in developing a child’s interest.

With coders (A.K.A. computer programmers) in such high demand, you’d think it would be obvious to “start ‘em young” and put high school students on a path to a rewarding career. And yet, according to Computer Science Education Week, computer science classes don’t count toward math or science high school graduation requirements in 22 states, including Colorado, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. It is no wonder that computing occupations are among the highest-paying jobs for new graduates, fewer than 3% of college students graduate with a degree in computer science.

I like the Florida legislation because it reflects the reality that coding is not a typical “science.” It’s like learning a foreign language or reading music. While there is specific structure — like music and literature — writing beautiful software is more art than science. In fact, some of the best coders I’ve known are also musicians. Furthermore, learning the structure of a computer language is easier than learning a second human language. People generally are not fluent in any language after only one year of study. However, I’ve seen computer programmers land great jobs with less than a year of training.

Developing more computer programmers requires a larger pool of talented teachers to lead computer science classes. The current lack of demand for those skills presents a chicken-and-egg problem. Because programmers are able to command six-figure salaries in a company, too few computer programming majors channel their talent and expertise into teaching at a high school.

To entice more teachers to take up computer science, local tech companies around the U.S. should consider emulating companies like Florida Power & Light and Pratt & Whitney and partner with schools in offering paid internship programs where STEM instructors can spend the summers gaining real-world experience. It’s a win for companies desperate for talent. It’s a win for teachers wanting to develop a skill, make extra money, and continue to do what they love. Most importantly, it’s a win for students. But, I have never seen it done.

Our U.S. government has been making efforts to solve this problem. Specifically, in January, President Obama announced $4 billion would go to states and $100 million directly to districts to increase access to K-12 computer science by training teachers, expanding access to high-quality instructional materials, and building regional partnerships.

I can’t think of a single high school activity that would better prepare a teenager for lifelong employment, not to mention world impact. After all, as we’ve seen many times, software can change our world. Don’t we want our kids writing the code?

Dean Hager is CEO of JAMF Software, an Apple device management company.

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