It’s not that they’re not interested in STEM jobs, it’s that they’re not educated in them.
GUEST COLUMN | by Holly Benson
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, from 2014 to 2024, computer and information technology jobs will grow 12 percent; faster than the average for all other occupations. By 2020, the agency predicts that of the projected 9.2 million jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM fields), roughly half will be dedicated to computing.
Yet, out of roughly 14,000 school districts, only a quarter of schools today offer computer science and programming courses. About three-quarters of all public schools don’t offer students the education they need to compete in tomorrow’s globalized job market. This is not for a lack of interest in computer sciences on the part of students. It’s for a lack of educational offerings at schools today.
Tomorrow’s workforce will need to learn, relearn and retrain as new technologies and processes are introduced.
That needs to change. U.S. schools need to offer computer science as a part of their curriculum so today’s students can remain competitive in tomorrow’s workforce. They also need to start training students in “soft skills” where communications, relationship-building and problem-solving abilities help students to build the habits of learning throughout their careers.
While it’s never too late to learn computer sciences, studies show that the earlier a student is exposed to these skills, the greater the probability they will pursue a related college major. In fact, according to a Gallup study commissioned by Google, of the students who had the opportunity to take an advanced-placement computer sciences exam, 46 percent were more likely to be interested in a computer sciences major.
However, according to an Infosys-commissioned survey, 45 percent of young people in the U.S. considered their academic education to be either very or quite old-fashioned. They also felt that their education failed to support their career goals, especially when compared to students and educational systems in emerging economies.
There is some truth to these suspicions. Many developed economies created their education systems to funnel students into economy-driving industries (e.g., farming, manufacturing). This makes it difficult for developed school systems to rapidly adapt to new and evolving fields like computer sciences. Emerging economies don’t share this burden, and by contrast, are often pioneering new education strategies that funnel into the industry driving their economies – namely, technology.
These two approaches nurture two divergent mentalities. Students in emerging economies are typically more aggressive in their education and are more willing to find ways to fill gaps in training. By contrast, students in developed economies expect a steady diet of preparatory training and feel uncomfortable when their education has shortcomings. Both educational models have their advantages and disadvantages, but only one encourages a lifelong desire to learn – a key factor when it comes to preparing students for one of the biggest industrial revolutions in history.
The research also found that in both developed and developing nations, young men feel markedly more prepared in technology knowledge than young women do. This echoes the lament that girls are simply not pursuing STEM education in the same numbers as boys. Many researchers and social activists are looking at the causes of this disparity in STEM education between boys and girls – but any solution to better equipping our youth with technology skills must also address how to attract more young women into the technology classroom in the first place, and give them greater confidence that they can succeed there.
In a more general approach however, educators will need to develop curricula that instill a passion for learning in students. Today, U.S. schools focus on testing and grading, rather than teaching the habits of lifelong learning. This is a problem, because tomorrow’s workforce will need to learn, relearn and retrain as new technologies and processes are introduced. They will also need an intuitive sense of how to apply new assets. What they will need are liquid skills — the ability to flex and adapt skills as needed.
Fortunately, there are many after-school activities that can nurture liquid skills while sparking an interest in computer sciences. Code.org hosts a yearly “Hour of Code” event, where students spend an hour learning to code. It’s a great introduction to the basic elements of computer science. The “maker” movement, where hobbyists of all ages build new digital inventions, is also a great way to encourage students to learn both mechanics and programming. Finally, hackathons offer students access to professionals with real-world experience and knowledge — one of the best educational resources you could ask for.
The best educational resource for computer sciences, however, will always be school itself. After-school clubs and alternative activities can only do so much, and can’t properly replace a dedicated curriculum.
Computer sciences are here to stay. The workers of the future, regardless of industry, will have to leverage computing skills to remain employable. Retail workers, farmers, construction workers and car mechanics — all will need to have an intimate knowledge of how computers work, how programs operate and how the two interact, to remain competitive.
Most youth today recognize that technology evolves faster than educational systems can keep up. This creates an unsettling predicament: students know they need to learn and apply new skills, but have little to no help in acquiring them. It’s time for today’s education system to step up and provide them with the support they need.
Holly Benson is a Partner in the Organizational Transformation practice of Infosys, where she helps clients find realistic solutions to their people and organizational challenges.