We can't keep jobs in the US if we can't fill them

To entice American and foreign corporations to invest in new factories, foundries and facilities, America needs to assure businesses and investors that there are talented people available to hire.

We cannot attract or keep jobs in the United States if we cannot fill them. Simply put, workforce preparation is just another word for education. If Americans are going to fill the over 500,000 job openings in the United State’s digital economy, responsible policy makers and education officials must provide them the opportunities to learn computer science in primary and secondary school.

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The Reagan administration first sounded the alarm for teaching computer science in high school in 1983. Sadly, most U.S. K-12 schools today still don’t offer computer science. With our current education trajectory, the U.S. cannot manage to fill the computing jobs currently open, and is not on track to fill the 1.1 million predicted by 2024.

 

This gap between demand and supply is felt across the entire national economy as 91 percent of open software and computing jobs are outside Silicon Valley. For example, in the Detroit area, there are only 1,150 open manufacturing jobs with a median salary of $46,350. In the same market, there are 6,150 open computing jobs with a median salary of $97,850.

The solution will require our national political leaders to act quickly to correct decades of neglect by encouraging every state and local school authority to offer school children courses in computer science. Currently, only 34 states allow students to count computer science courses toward high school graduation.

States that are making concerted efforts to bring computer science into their education curriculum include Virginia, which was one of the first states to pass sweeping computer science education reform which mandating that every Virginia student receive access to essential computer science literacy.

Arkansas has moved ahead of the rest of the U.S. by passing legislation to make access to computer science education mandatory in secondary education. Arkansas further provided $5 million in the 2016-2017 budget and $5 million in the 2018-2019 budget to incent high schools to offer computer science.

However, local programs alone won’t be able to successfully and expeditiously address this challenge. Code.org spokesman’s rhetorical question dramatizes the need for a combined federal/state/local response, “how many state departments of education have even a single employee in charge of K-12 computer science?

Only six. If there’s not even a single person running a computer science department at the state or district level, the local budget will be divided among the departments that already exist, leaving nothing for the non-existent computer science department.” There is a clear need for, and bi-partisan support of, federal involvement in advancing computer science education.

Parents and children alike want computer science classes. Surveys show that 90 percent of American parents want their children to study computer science in school, and 88 percent want this to have federally funded support. Some colleges are forced to reject up to 70 percent of computer science applicants because they don’t have the capacity to teach them.

Just a few months ago, a coalition of Fortune 500 CEOs, governors, educators, and nonprofit leaders signed an open letter asking the Federal government to fund computer science education. Hence, integrating computer science into K-12 curriculum would satisfy the demands of parents, students, local governments, educators and employers, creating strong bonds between educational institutions and the job market.

The opportunity to close the talent-demand gap is greatest when it comes to providing girls and women with computer science education. Our tech talent pool is far less diverse than it was a few decades ago. In the 1980s, women were awarded nearly 40 percent of computer science degrees, but today they are graduating with a dismal 18 percent of awarded degrees.

Increasing the amount of women in the tech pipeline would help alleviate the strain on demand and increase the diversity of talent available. In other words, increasing the participation of women (and other underrepresented groups) would allow us to more quickly solve the talent shortage.

This shortage is not without other serious consequences, especially for American national defense and cyber security where neither the government nor federal contractors are permitted to issue security clearances to non-citizens on temporary visas. At the moment, it is estimated that there are only 1,000 security specialists in the U.S. who have the specialized skills to effectively address threats in cyberspace. Our current need is at least ten times that amount.

In failing to address the connection between national security and computer science, a greater issue goes unaddressed: As the federal government takes steps to prevent cyber-attacks, who will design, build, and execute the programs necessary to protect us?

If we continue on our current path, the answer to that question will be foreign contractors or no one at all. The reality of the situation is, until computer science education is a national priority we will continue to lose jobs overseas and become less safe here at home.  

To get more U.S. citizens involved in this growing field, introducing computer science at a young age and is the most effective approach. By incorporating computer science instruction into the K-12 curriculum of schools across the country, children will become familiar with the language of coding and can begin to visualize rewarding computer science careers.

By providing for the voluntary nation-wide adoption of K-12 computer science curriculum that encourages diversity, the administration can ensure the employment of the next generation of American computer scientists and innovators.

This policy has the potential to expand the ranks of the middle class, giving more Americans the opportunity to achieve the American Dream of a stable, well-paying job. America has always been a hub for innovation and competitiveness; by providing a solid background in computer science for all American children, we can continue to build a creative and resilient workforce that will lead the rest of the world.

The Trump administration needs to rally state and local educators and political leaders to address this immediate need to groom young girls and boys to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow.

Paula Stern is the former chairwoman of the US International Trade Commision and senior adviser to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.