Story at a glance

  • By some estimates, there are more than 500,000 unfilled computing jobs nationwide by some estimates.
  • Only around 45 percent of high schools nationally offer computer science classes.
  • In Utah, entrepreneurs are on a mission to see that every student in the state is exposed to programming, raising millions of dollars toward that goal.
  • The state’s governor says he is including $10.2 million in this year’s budget for expanding computer science education.

Fikir Teklemedhin, like most middle schoolers, didn’t know what she wanted to do for a career. One day in seventh grade, she found herself sitting in a Java programming class, unsure of what to expect.

The experience delighted her. No longer a passive user of technology, she was thrilled with the opportunity to manipulate everything on the screen in front of her.

“It was such a novelty,” Teklemedhin says. Before, “I would stream, I would browse the internet, but that wasn't the same as actually making the computer do what I wanted it to. [Also,] it was interesting to see the background behind what actually goes on instead of just using it with a layer of abstraction.”

Fast forward a few years and Teklemedhin, now a sophomore at West High School in Salt Lake City, has two AP computer science classes under her belt, experience in robotics from extracurricular pursuits and a burgeoning career path.

“I want to work as a software developer and engineer in artificial intelligence.”

Fewer than half of high school students in the state of Utah have access to any computer science courses, and that, she says, is a tragedy for other students who lack the opportunities that she has had.

“Computer science is not treated as a necessity even though it brings to most people's lives things that are considered basic necessities, like the internet and other aspects of technology,” says Teklemedhin. “I think it was just very random for me to have chosen computer science… it was almost like a flip of the coin.”

New opportunities

Teklemedhin’s story strongly resonates with Aaron Skonnard. Skonnard was 8 years old when his father — an accountant by trade — brought home Apple’s first desktop computer. From there, the father and son learned to program together. Like Teklemedhin, the exposure fundamentally changed the younger Skonnard’s life, putting him on course to his current role as CEO and co-founder of Pluralsight, a Utah-based online education company that offers video training courses for tech professionals.

“It was that experience that pulled me into it in high school and then later on in college,” Skonnard explains. “It's really that early exposure, that early access to computer science that most highly correlates with producing more software developers out in the marketplace.”

According to Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools, there are nearly 500,000 unfilled computing jobs nationwide. (While some have debated that particular number, there appears to be a consensus that the demand for domestic skilled programmers exceeds the supply by hundreds of thousands, a divide that is expected to grow in the next decade.)

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the average salary for programmers is $84,000 per year with many jobs paying in the six figures. However, only around 45 percent of high schools nationally even offer computer science classes and even fewer of all K-12 schools do.

Looking to rectify that in his company’s own backyard, Skonnard is on a mission to see that every student in Utah is exposed to programming. Joining him are three other leaders of local tech companies: Ryan Smith of Qualtrics, Josh James of Domo and Dave Elkington of XANT (formerly InsideSales.com). Each, along with their wives, are contributing $1 million “to ensure every K-12 student in Utah has the chance to learn computer science by 2022,” says Skonnard.

Those contributions — and millions more expected in the future — comprise the Silicon Slopes Computer Science Fund. Silicon Slopes refers to Salt Lake City, Provo, Park City, Cache Valley and surrounding areas known for a high concentration of startups. It also refers to a nonprofit set up to promote the shared interests of regional tech companies which, according to their site, includes making “entrepreneurship and opportunity in Silicon Slopes open and accessible to all.”

In addition to the private fund, Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) recently announced his intent to include $10.2 million in this year’s state budget earmarked for expanding computer science education to every K-12 student in the state. For Skonnard, this alignment between public and private entities is key to the program’s success with the private funding serving as a “challenge” to the state. While the Silicon Slopes fund is dedicated to this cause, a community board of advisors — rather than the state — will direct the way the money is granted out to schools, which will, in turn, help keep the state on track. Skonnard argues this structure will help accelerate the program and avoid the bureaucratic pitfalls purely state-controlled programs often fall victim too.

“We're already making a lot of progress, and we believe it's because of the unique model we've used to combine forces between the state government, the school board and private industry to get collectively aligned around this,” Skonnard explains, pointing out that every school district in the state has already submitted plans for initial grants.

When asked if this effort could be seen as private companies availing themselves to public funds as a way of decreasing their own training costs, Skonnard responds that, while companies in the Silicon Slopes will benefit, the real benefit will be to the Utah economy.

“The average salary of someone with a computer science education is roughly double the current average within the state of Utah,” he says. “So, it does actually produce a lot of benefit to the local economy in terms of tax base and future income potential as well as with the growth of all these companies within the state.”

Increasing diversity

Expanding computer science education will also aid in reducing inequality in the economy, adds Arne Duncan, who was Secretary of Education under President Obama.

“I think tech has this amazing potential to be the great equalizer,” says Duncan, who currently serves on the board of Pluralsight. “This is the new literacy. In the tech space, generally, women have been locked out, people of color have been locked out, and that’s a lot of talent we are locking out. Making coding available to everyone gives kids a chance to find their passion, and it will open up a world of opportunity that they didn’t even know exists.”

Duncan added that he sees it as a pilot with national implications.

“It’s important to start on your own turf, but I would love every child in America to have these kinds of opportunities at an early age,” he told Changing America. “There’s always a real risk and that is if opportunity is not evenly distributed — if only the wealthy have access and not those that are struggling — tech will only exacerbate between the haves and the haves not.”

That’s something Teklemedhin understands well as an immigrant who moved with her family from Ethiopia to Utah when she was 5 years old. She also argues that, while not everyone who takes a computer science class will become a programmer, everyone would benefit from understanding technology more, and universal computer education would also help remove some of the stigma around programmers.

“It doesn't have to be your life but just being digitally literate opens up so many doors for you,” she says. “There are just so many applications to it that I don't think that it fits one stereotype. The fact that kids can now know that they have these resources available to them is just a huge step forward because it's not about forcing kids to do it if they don't like it, but just knowing that they have the chance to do something that they could possibly like.”

Published on Jan 22, 2020