The tech sector is white hot — on track to grow faster than all but five other industries by 2020 and, among all of them, tech pays the best with the average software developer earning $92,080. Yet interest in the IT field among young people is tepid at best. We need to light a metaphorical fire in the hearts and minds of high school and college students, one that extends beyond simply using cool tech gadgets and software to actually dreaming and developing it. Most importantly, we need to teach kids to code.
First, some facts:
• Computer science is the only one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields that has seen a decrease in student participation during the past 20 years, from 25 percent of high school students to only 19 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
• In a ranking of the top 10 best jobs for 2014 by CareerCast.com and JobsRated.com, software engineer and computer systems analyst ranked seventh and eighth, respectively. Among the reasons for the top scores: work environment, job opportunity outlook and low stress.
• Mark Roberts, CEO of the IT industry trade group TechServe Alliance, reports that more than 10,000 IT jobs were added to the U.S. economy in July for the ninth consecutive month — and unemployment rates for IT are in the low single digits.
Personal experience confirms these facts. The biggest challenge my company, Intertech, faces is finding enough qualified programmers and other IT professionals to fill all the positions we have to offer. Admittedly, we do have high standards (only one in 20 applicants makes the cut), but our recruiters work extremely hard simply to find enough prospective employees for consideration.
If IT jobs are lucrative, plentiful and offer a secure career path, why is there a shortage of qualified employees? I believe the answer can be found in our high schools. Most do not offer any sort of computer programming classes. The few Minnesota high schools that do offer computer programming only do so as an elective, which many college-bound students cannot squeeze into their already heavy load of requirements.
We could change this picture by making computer programming and other computer science classes core courses at all high schools in Minnesota and the nation. As Mitch Resnick of the MIT Media Lab explains, our kids need to become “technology fluent.” Just like learning a foreign language, learning the language of technology should be mandatory for anyone growing up in our technology-driven society. That means being taught not just to “read” it (as in play with cool technology), but to “write” and “speak” it by using programming languages (code) to create unique software-based tools and processes.
Not only would this benefit technology companies and the thousands of customers we serve, it would increase our country’s general prosperity, help more Americans to achieve a secure middle class future, and contribute to national competitiveness and security.
Ironically, many school districts are handing out free iPads and expecting technology learning to occur. Rather, we need to do the challenging, but rewarding, work of teaching young people the computer languages that underpin technology devices. Doing so also would build problem-solving and communication skills, while fostering persistence and creativity.
How can we achieve such an ambitious goal? For starters, teachers in our state who want to teach programming should be provided with an efficient path to certification and rewarded financially for doing so. And IT career professionals who want to teach should be offered a streamlined way to make a mid- or late-career switch to take their real-world learning into high school classrooms.
Another option would be for junior and senior high schools to sponsor “guest teaching” opportunities (like guest professors at the college level) for IT professionals who would be willing to donate a few hours each week to teach students coding, as well as to expose students to the potential of an IT career.
For our part, the Intertech Foundation will begin offering a $2,500 scholarship in fall 2015 to a qualified student who intends to study computer science at any accredited U.S. college or university. It’s a small step, but an ocean of change begins with a single drop of water. Here’s hoping other like-minded education, business, civic leaders and parents will help make it a tidal wave.
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