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Talent Shortage Rooted in Education, Say Tech Industry Experts

Salt Lake City—Here’s a statistic to chew on: looking at the current pipeline of students, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that by 2020, an estimated one million computer programming jobs in the U.S. will not be filled. The tech talent shortage isn’t a Utah problem, it’s a national problem—and its roots are dug deeply into our education system.

But how do you solve the STEM education problem? According to some in the tech community, that answer may lie within the industry itself, acting in its own best interest. A group of over 15 technology entrepreneurs and executives met at Utah Business’ annual technology roundtable Tuesday morning at Holland & Hart, discussing topics ranging from Utah’s tech ecosystem to diversity to STEM literacy in school-age children.

In order to interest more students in STEM—and prepare them for possible STEM careers—what needs to happen is a fundamental change in high school education infrastructure, said Mitch Macfarlane, COO at Instructure,

“Number one, you have to change the high school curriculum. I think it’s interesting to do STEM in K-7, K-8 grades, but what’s going to drive these outcomes and have a fundamental impact on the talent pool in short term is changing high school curriculum so kids are required to do some coding,” said Macfarlane. “Maybe it’s UX design. Maybe it’s product management. It’s things that are going to enable them and give them the skills to compete in today’s economy.”

The problem is a pressing one, says Carine Clark, CEO at Banyan. The longer students go without mandatory tech and coding education—which Clark calls as necessary to children “as showering,” the more disadvantage we, as a nation, become.

“Why wouldn’t we arm our students in this state to take advantage? It’s going to be a disadvantage for our country [if we don’t],” she says. “This is an arms war, a tech war, and we’re not keeping up.”

However, the solution isn’t as simple as it seems. First, as Kristy Sevy, founder and CEO at Fuzeplay mentioned, the government does not exactly move as fast as the tech community would want it to. Second, there aren’t enough qualified educators to teach coding and computer science—almost all of that talent is working in the tech industry, not education, said Sunny Washington, CEO at Ardusat.

“As a state, every kid should take a coding class—but who is going to teach that coding class? There just aren’t teachers,” said Washington. “I think you have to go back and forth and say, before we can change curriculum, we have to have a teaching population that can teach these skills or have the materials to teach them. I think it’s great that [tech companies] come in and do an hour of code… but we expose them one hour of code in a year. That’s just not enough.”

And, while tech companies and schools can sponsor clubs or after-school events, Washington said that still only serves parents “that are aware of them, or kids that have a passion driving them. We’re neglecting the other 80 percent.”

In that case, said Frank Maylett, CEO of RizePoint, tech companies need to take more of a “front line” approach.

“How many of us, as business leaders, as CEOs of our companies, have adopted Title 1 schools, have sponsored STEM scholarships to underprivileged kids, have really taken an active role in trying to solve this problem from a very front-line sort of position?” he asked. “We’ve done a lot of that. We’ve adopted a Title 1 school. We send our engineers over to do Engineer Day, and they teach basic coding to these kids. We talk about technology. They’ll let you in. I encourage all of us, as leaders, to do exactly that. Find somewhere that we can step in locally and influence—maybe not the entire education system—but Midvale Middle School, Union Park Middle School.”

The conversation was moderated by Sara Jones, COO at Women Tech Council. Read the full discussion in the December issue of Utah Business.