Thought Leadership

The Business Case For Investing In K-12 Computer-Science Education

By Karen Jung

Karen Jung
As president of Nextech, Karen Jung works to fulfill the organization’s vision of transforming K-12 students from technology consumers into next-gen tech pioneers. A graduate of DePauw University and the Krannert Graduate School of Management at Purdue University, Karen developed a successful career as a product expert for several leading technology companies, most recently ExactTarget.

Introduction

One of the most urgent challenges facing Indiana’s business community is the shortage of workers possessing the skills and knowledge needed to function effectively in an increasingly complex, tech-driven economy.

This brief report examines that shortage – and offers concrete, proven solutions. As it turns out, this is a problem that can be solved, if we are willing to make well-targeted investments in programs that have already been shown to work.

The Skills-Gap Crisis: The Big Picture

The first thing to understand about Indiana’s tech skills gap is that it’s a reflection of a broader national and even global reality. It’s been fashionable in recent years to talk about the importance of the STEM field – science, technology, engineering, and math. But even within that high-growth sector, computer science (CS) stands out for the number of job openings it is generating nationwide.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that two-thirds of all new STEM jobs are in a single discipline – computing. However, only 11 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees are in computer science. The result is a skilled-worker deficit that ripples through the economy for years. According to national job data, there are almost 10 times more US computing jobs open right now than there were students who graduated with computer-science degrees in 2015.

But in a very real sense, the skills gap is even bigger than these statistics might suggest. For starters, the idea of a “STEM job” is a bit of a misnomer in an era when a high proportion of jobs throughout the economy require at least some computing proficiency.

Study after study has shown that employers nationwide aren’t just lacking sufficient numbers of potential workers with CS degrees to fill open jobs. They’re looking for workers with the skill sets that enable people – and organizations – to respond effectively to the perpetual changes of the digital era.

A Google-sponsored study by The Economist found that “Internationally, employers appear to be struggling to find young people with the skills they need. Over half (51%) of executives surveyed say a skills gap is hampering their organisation’s performance, and only 34% claim to be satisfied with the level of attainment of young people entering the company.”

And what are the skills employers say the need? The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs study included a list of the “top skills for 2025.” Of the 15 leading skills listed, the four highest-ranking were “analytical thinking and innovation”; “active learning and learning strategies”; “complex problem solving”; and “critical thinking and analysis.”

All four are traits rigorously honed by computer-science training. Two other skills among the top eight are even more closely correlated to CS: “technology use, monitoring, and control” and “technology design and programming.”

Such future-oriented skills become particularly important when seen in the context of a larger reality: The needs of the marketplace are evolving so fast that it’s not enough to prepare young people for the jobs of today – they need the skills that will prepare them for the opportunities of tomorrow. According to an Institute For The Future report published by Dell Technologies, 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet.

Speaking of jobs, no less a tech authority than Apple founder Steve Jobs was a firm believer in the value of computer science as a training for future success. “Everyone in this country should learn to program a computer,” he said. “Everyone should learn a computer language because it teaches you how to think. I think of computer science as a liberal art.”

The Skills-Gap Crisis: A Threat to Indiana’s Prosperity, Now and Tomorrow

These broader trends are certainly visible here in Indiana. In fact, our state was featured in a February 2021 Washington Post article about the readiness of US companies to meet modern manufacturing needs.

“Productivity in Indiana’s most advanced industries — including agricultural chemicals, medical equipment and adhesives production — has lagged behind the national average for the past 10 years and the gap is widening,” the article found, citing a Brookings Institution study. “A key reason is that Indiana’s manufacturers and other companies are moving too slowly to adopt a host of digital technologies.”

Out-of-state commentators are not the only ones who have noted Indiana’s skills-gap problem. “Complaints about Indiana’s skills mismatch tend to come from the state’s prominent industry clusters, especially advanced manufacturing and health care,” wrote Tanya Hall and Carol O. Rogers of the Indiana Business Research Center at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. “These are key drivers of the Indiana economy, along with life sciences, defense and aerospace, logistics, and energy. In these high value-added clusters, the occupational skill requirements are notably different than in many other sectors, and they change more rapidly.”

As might be expected, a growing proportion of the state’s job openings will be in technology-related roles. Cyberstates projects the Indianapolis area’s base of tech-occupation employment will grow by 7.8 percent by 2026. In a listing of the top growth occupations in Indiana, the career website Zippia projected that “web developer” would the fourth-fastest-growing job category in the state, with a 139.1 percent increase in openings by 2024. “Software developer” was 13th fastest-growing, with an anticipated 128.1 percent rise in demand.What would it mean for our state if we remain unable to meet employers’ ever-increasing demand for tech-savvy talent?

  • Our people lose out on job opportunities.
  • Our companies lose out on growth opportunities, for lack of suitably skilled workers.
  • Our state cannot compete as effectively as it should for tech-related jobs.
  • Our towns and neighborhoods are deprived of the solid, middle-class jobs that sustain solid, middle-class communities.

But this need not be our future. To ensure that Indiana is positioned to take full advantage of coming opportunities, we must understand why the skills gap exists – and how our state can fill it successfully. The next sections of this report will turn to those vital questions.

Understanding the Gap: Why Indiana K-12 Students Aren’t Getting the Skills They Need

When it comes to actually addressing the skills gap, we must not make the mistake of thinking too narrowly about Indiana’s talent pool. The business community needs to think of the tech workforce from a “long game” perspective.

Fostering the necessary skills among recent college graduates is not the only way to go. We must nourish tech skills among younger future workers – as early as high school or even middle school. A 2016 Accenture study, “Cracking the Gender Code,” found that taking action in junior high to encourage girls in CS would result in 1.1 million more females entering the field by 2025 than would do so if those actions had not begun until senior high; and 2 million more than would do so if no actions had been taken until college. Furthermore, the cumulative earnings that would result by 2025 from actions taken in junior high would be seven times higher than if no action were taken until college.

However, Indiana students aren’t currently taking advantage of this early-learning advantage. Just over 5 percent of Indiana’s high-school students completed a CS course in the 2019-2020 academic year. The result: Too few Hoosier students are entering “the top of the funnel” for future tech careers. The funnel metaphor has become popular in business theory to describe the psychological process that buyers go through when considering a potential purchase; it’s the same logic we need to think of with regard to “selling” students” on the decision to “buy into” a tech career path.

This question of student interest is truly at the heart of the issue. Indiana is actually a leading state when it comes to committing resources to ensure students have access to CS courses. The state already has laws requiring schools to offer the subject. There is state and federal funding in place for such instruction, and established programs in place to train teachers on how to present CS material to their students. In short, all the pieces are in place for success. All, that is, but one – student willingness to actually take computer-science classes.

One major factor is that students simply don’t know what they need to know about the importance of CS skills. “Students are generally unconvinced that computer science is important for them to learn,” a joint Gallup/Google study reported. “This highlights a need for all stakeholders to provide students with more information about how computer science can help them meet their goals in a variety of fields and to specifically encourage girls to take computer science courses.”

As the end of that statement makes clear, there is a strong diversity element to this issue, not only for girls but also for many Black and Latino students. In our own experience of working with students statewide, we have frequently encountered girls and students of color who imply – or state outright – that they don’t think they can pursue a CS career since they don’t see “people that look like them” working in the sector.

National statistics do little to dissuade their impression: Only 15 percent of the national computing workforce is Black, Latino, or Native American; and less than 30 percent is female. The place to begin building a more diverse, inclusive tech workforce is the same place where young people make formative choices about potential career path: junior and senior school.

Filling the Gap: What Works – And How You Can Help

Fortunately, there’s increasingly sophisticated research about how students choose their career paths – and the factors that might influence them to be more open to computer science.

AP course access is clearly part of the mix. A Code.org study found that high-school AP computer-science students are more than twice as likely to take the subject in college than other students (58 percent vs 28 percent). High-school AP CS students are six times more likely to major in computer science than students who hadn’t taken AP CS. (19 percent vs 3 percent). These AP advantages were even more pronounced among girls and under-represented minorities. 

There’s also a huge role for work-based learning – and, therefore, for employers. Research has established that high-school students who are exposed to real-world work opportunities are more likely to graduate, persist in, and complete postsecondary education and secure higher-paying employment. Yet very few of our young people ever experience meaningful work-based learning opportunities and career exposure while in high school. 

“States must make their high school programs more responsive to the labor market by enlisting the employer community as a lead partner,” a report from the Council of Chief State School Officers data attested. “This will require a new partnership with the employer community, one that gives them the responsibility for identifying high-demand, high-skill industries and developing a suite of authentic work-based learning experiences so that schools can align career preparation with the specific needs of business and industry.”

Nextech’s purpose is to create this bridge between the business and educational communities, and to solve the Indiana CS-skills gap. Our mission is to create equitable access to computer-science curriculum and experiences for all of Indiana’s K-12 students, making sure every young person in Indiana – regardless of family income or social background – is equipped to participate successfully in the Information Age. 

This work begins with ensuring students have access to high-quality computer-science curriculum in the classroom. That requires the presence of a knowledgeable teacher. Nextech equips K-12 teachers with the content knowledge, instructional strategies, and industry experiences needed to confidently deliver computer-science instruction.

From there, Nextech’s work focuses on what we call the Student Journey – a series of experiences that authentically connect students with the individuals and workplaces that best embody the possibilities of a tech career.

We guide young people along this journey through a variety of programs. One is Nextech Navigate, a virtual CS conference designed and built from the ground up exclusively for Indiana high-school students. Another major program is Catapult High School Experience, an immersive summer program in which students build technical knowledge and workplace skills, and become acquainted with the growing Indianapolis high-tech community.

Supporting our work at Nextech is an excellent way for companies to address the tech skills gap in Indiana. But it’s not the only way: You can also develop in-house programs within your organization, hosting students for workplace visits and giving employees time to volunteer as guest speakers. If you’d like to go even further, talk with Nextech about how your business might set up internships or apprentice programs.

Such efforts are not corporate philanthropy. They represent a deeply practical investment in the future of your business, your community, and the state we’re proud to call home. Let us know if you have any questions or if you’d like to talk further about how your company might become part of the solution to this urgent statewide challenge.

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