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The high-tech skills gap and education

On Sept. 26, Software.org: the BSA Foundation released a new report titled “The Economic Impact of Software.” The study details the rapid growth of the software industry in the United States and its resulting impact across the economy — both at national and state levels.

The study found that the total direct value the software industry added to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) is $564.4 billion, and that there are currently more than 2.9 million jobs in the U.S. software industry. That’s an increase of 14.6% since 2014.

When you look at the number of software jobs — including software developers, web designers and project coordinators across all industries — it jumps to 10.5 million.

The software industry also pays well. According to the study mentioned above, the average U.S. software developer’s wage is $104,360 — more than twice the annual wage average for all U.S. occupations ($49,630).

The high-tech skills gap

So, why is it that U.S. tech companies seem to have so much trouble finding qualified candidates to fill these high-tech, high-paying jobs? Some technology is growing so fast that as soon as a position is filled, another role is needed; there is a continuous demand for that particular technology’s skill set.

Another explanation for this skills gap is that the talents most needed by software employers are not being taught in today’s education system. According to Gallup, fewer than half — only 40% — of schools offer computer science classes despite the fact that nine out of 10 parents surveyed wanted their children to learn computer science. In another study, students named computer science their favorite subject.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will be 1.4 million technology-related job openings in 2020, but only 400,000 graduates with the skills required to fill them. That means there will be 1 million unfilled high-tech job openings by 2020. These openings will be found in every industry across the economy — from retail to healthcare and manufacturing to financial services.

These jobs will also be available across the United States. The states with the most direct impact on the software industry, whether through direct GDP, job growth or research and development investment, include California, New York, Massachusetts, Texas and Washington.

How do we fill the gap?

One of the most effective and efficient ways to fill this software skills gap is to increase investments in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), as well as computer science education.

Many organizations work directly with local schools to connect students with internships, apprenticeships, mentoring and other learning opportunities. Some programs even allow students to earn college credits or gain an industry certification while still in high school.

Diverse, skilled workforce initiatives are another priority for many organizations. Through these initiatives, companies often contribute by sponsoring K-12 initiatives in underserved communities, working directly with colleges committed to minority populations, and promoting programs that encourage girls and women to study science and engineering.

Another way to make computer science fundamental is through legislation and recommending state policies to make computer science central to K-12 education in the U.S. Currently, only 10 states have created K-12 computer science standards.

For example, Indiana’s computer science academic standards for grades three, four and five include learning about binary numbers, algorithms, troubleshooting, programming languages, crowdsourcing and the responsible use of technology and information.

In Nov. 2016, the Florida Senate passed a first-of-its-kind proposal to allow computer programming to fulfill a foreign language requirement for high school students. The legislation ultimately failed after going nowhere in the Florida House of Representatives, but it has brought light to the subject and given states a new, creative approach to address the issue.

The Code.org Advocacy Coalition supports the implementation of the following policies to make computer science a fundamental part of the K-12 education system:

  • Create a state plan for K-12 computer science
  • Define computer science and establish rigorous K-12 computer science academic standards
  • Fund computer science professional development and support course development
  • Implement a clear certification pathway for computer science teachers
  • Incentivize higher education institutions to offer computer science to pre-service teachers
  • Establish dedicated computer science positions in state and local education agencies
  • Require that all high schools offer computer science with an appropriate implementation timeline and financial resources
  • Allow computer science to satisfy a core graduation requirement
  • Clearly define computer science education in federal policy and programs
  • Use federal policies that influence teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities to grow a computer science teaching workforce
  • Adequately support computer science education by devoting a portion of STEM funding available from 13 federal agencies

These potential legislative changes, combined with investment in the education system, will allow the software industry to maintain its growth and innovation while also providing skilled employees for years to come.

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