A call to invest in tech education

In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a competition to redesign our nation’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education. Schools would be rewarded for pursuing new partnerships with colleges and employers and for creating STEM courses, a signal of the growing value of high-tech skills in our economy.

Four years ago, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan introduced the Race to the Top grant, a competitive program to promote performance-based standards and rigorous interventions for low-performing schools among other reforms. In a Wall Street Journal article published in October of 2012, Brad Smith, the executive vice president and general counsel of Microsoft, called for a “Race to the Future” – a similar program that would instead grant funding and incentives to schools pioneering STEM education and expanding access to computer science. 

Emphasizing the connection between high-tech education and the skills needed for employment is especially relevant to us at Thinkful. On Tuesday night, the President articulated a vision for a rehaul of high school’s tech education that seemed to propose such a program. As President Obama said, science, technology, engineering, and math are the “skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.” 

The skills gap, a divide between jobs in demand and skills in supply, is a growing concern in fields that require technical skills. In his WSJ article entitled “America’s Talent Deficit,” Smith wrote about the widening gap between jobs and skills for tech jobs:

“According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. this year will create some 120,000 new jobs requiring at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science,” he wrote. “But all of our colleges and universities put together will produce only 40,000 new bachelor’s degrees in computer science.” 

A McKinsey report on the education to employment pipeline found that almost 40 percent of employers cite lack of skills as the reason for entry-level job openings. In a New York Times article published last summer that articulated this problem at a micro level, Gabriel Shaoolian, the chief executive of marketing and web design company Blue Fountain Media, said he had 10 unfilled positions because he could not find people with technical backgrounds. “If you’re a professional developer, Web designer or online marketing specialist, you can pick the company you work for,” Shaoolian told the Times. “There is a shortage where demand severely outstrips supply.”

In the past, employers bore the financial burden of addressing the skills gap; companies had extensive apprenticeship and internal training programs. But as Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, explained in a Room for Debate piece in the Times those programs have declined in recent years because companies are no longer willing to spend their own funds. Instead, they spend more time waiting for candidates with the perfect skills and are forced to leave jobs unfilled.

After the recession hit, many companies reduced their training programs or slashed them altogether. Tammy Krings, the owner of a global travel business, recently told NBC News she immediately cut training during the downturn because she was not hiring new employees.

Companies are still hesitant to invest in internal training. “I don’t think companies are confident enough right now to make big investments (in training),” Melanie Holmes, who has tracked workplace issues in a 30-year career with a global staffing company called Manpower, told NBC News. “They want to hire someone who can be productive tomorrow.” With employers spending less money internally training new hires or retraining current employees to meeting changing demands, it is largely left to individuals to gain those skills on their own. 

At Thinkful, our mission is to support individuals in that process. Our online personalized education seeks to help people address the widening skills-gap by focusing on vocational skills employers need. In over 100 conversations with employers across the country, we have heard countless testimonials about the difficulty of finding skilled employees for technology jobs – people trained in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript – and the value of providing an online training course in those skills to potential new hires.

With a rapidly evolving technologies and an economy that demands workers’ skills constantly adapt, we are building curricula that can change and grow with the immediate and real needs of employers.