Coding Kids - Solving the IT Skills Gap
Tech companies looking to hire American workers are encountering a real shortage of IT skills -- in fact, more than half our workforce is unqualified for jobs requiring middle-level skills. The solution to this, however, may lie in toys you can find in a kindergarten classroom.
If coding is the basic common language of our new industrial era, then at what age should we start learning to speak it? Many would say, at the very least, college. Some groups are pushing for greater accessibility in high school. But others still, say preschool and kindergarten—i.e. around the same time kids are learning to speak any language for the first time—which really gives a whole new meaning to ‘Head Start.’
From a business perspective, boosting early access to computer science education is how we can attempt to address the skills gap in the U.S.
Jackson T. attends high school in Maine, and at 13-years-old, he’s an incredibly proficient coder. Currently, he’s the youngest student in his 9th grade class, and he says most of the time it feels like he knows more than his computer science teacher.
While his father being an engineer certainly plays a factor in his early interest in computer programming, Jackson credits another man for incubating his passion at a young age—that man is named Mario.
“I loved breaking video games and causing glitches. I had to go to a day care after school every day and we’d play New Super Mario Brothers. My friends found it amazing when I broke the game and got into places I wasn’t supposed to be in. I ended up wanting to make Mario levels at around [age] 7, so I hacked into my DS using an R4 card and exploits. Later I hacked my Wii and installed the Homebrew Channel. It was really fun to make Mario levels but some of it required me to program, so that’s how I started.”
His earliest exposure to computer programming came in the 1st grade, when he attended an after-school program called Little Learners; now he claims to already have his future sequenced out.
“I’ve been working on [developing] a social media site,” Jackson said. “I’ve got someone doing marketing for me and we’ll be doing a test group once I get the prototype done.”
He describes his social media site as a cross between Reddit and Facebook.
“My goal is to Bill Gates my way through school and be able to have a job that I enjoy.”
The reason it makes sense to get kids fluent in coding language, is that we are facing a serious skills gap. According to the National Skills Coalition’s analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, middle-skill jobs represent 53% of the U.S. labor market, but only 43% of the country’s workers are trained to the middle-skill level. Additionally, A 2016 poll conducted by Gallup for the Business-Higher Education Forum found that by 2021, 69% of hiring employers would expect to give preference to candidates with data science skills.
So while there may be plenty of IT jobs available, what there isn’t plenty of is enough qualified tech pros to actually fill them. Less still, when you factor in current federal restrictions on immigration-based hiring. So if employers want qualified engineers, the best long-term solution is to invest in your future workforce at the seed-level.
Let’s look at some people who are already doing this.
Code.org is one of the largest web-based providers of free coding/computer science classes. It is backed by Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Google, and has provided training to over 57,000 teachers. Founded by twin brothers Hadi Partovi (an early investor in Facebook and AirBnB) and Ali Partovi (an early investor in Zappos and Dropbox), the service is a clear response to the lack of computer science programs currently being offered in public school systems.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, made this point when he visited the White House back in June during an American Technology Council Roundtable, saying “Coding should be a requirement in every public school. We have a huge deficit with the skills that we need today.”
Microsoft President Bradford L. Smith—who is one of Code.org’s most generous backers—wrote a report a few years ago outlining a detailed plan to solve America’s skill shortage by increasing early-age access to computer science education.
Alluding to the increase in federal funding science programs saw during the Soviet Union-rivaling Space Race of the 1950s, Smith said, “We think computer science is to the 21st century what physics was to the 20th century.”
While we may not be aiming for space travel, what we are aiming for is an increase in opportunities made available to those who didn’t know they were available in the first place, and an increase in the amount of people who can one day be qualified enough to fill the gaping hole in the IT employment sector.
Smith and Partovi’s efforts have already resulted in 24 states allowing computer science credits to qualify as core math or science requirements towards high school graduation. There are also similar-minded, skill-empowerment groups like Black Girls Code, Latina Girls Code, Girls Who Code working to make coding more accessible to underrepresented communities.
Some people question the motives of big tech companies pushing for a bigger investment in what ultimately come across as self-interest. How young is too young to learn coding? Is there such thing as too young? Can you be too young to be fluent in two languages?
Last year, Microsoft and Code.org pushed for a particularly industry-centric career-education bill in Idaho. Here’s a sentence from that bill (which was later passed into law): “It is essential that efforts to increase computer science instruction, kindergarten through career, be driven by the needs of industry and be developed in partnership with industry.”
One voice of dissent came from Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, who said, “It gets very problematic when industry is deciding the content and direction of public education.”
Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said, “I think the idea of having preschoolers learn coding is pretty crazy.”
Conversely, if you were to ask Ajay Kapur, president and CEO of an online creative learning platform called Kadenze, he’d say preschool is not too young to start learning the basics of computer science.
“Instead of drawing with a crayon, [students are] drawing with code,” Kapur said, while adding, “This visual output for coding needs to have a creative aspect and be aesthetically pleasing to keep young ones interested.”
Marina Umaschi Bers, a professor of child and human development and computer science at Tufts University (as well as co-developer of ScratchJr and a robotics kit for kids aged 4-7 called Kibo), said the benefits of learning computer programming at a young age extend beyond whatever field of work that child pursues one day:
“If you get better at sequencing, it has a measurable positive effect on reading comprehension,” said Bers. “A parent can have their kid engage in coding with the knowledge that a lot of kids won't become programmers, but there is this broad-based benefit."
Another preschool coding advocate, and founder of a computer programming learning software company called codeSpark, Grant Hosford said, “If we were teaching coding like reading and math, we would break it down into bite-size chunks, make it more fun with songs and stories, and give students two decades to reach mastery.”
He added, "With coding we throw you in the deep end in high school or college and are surprised when most kids drown."
While Hosford suggests high school and college are too late to start learning computer science, his game, called The Foos, teaches coding at a fundamental, pre-literate level – which means, you can learn to code before you’ve even learned to read. Aimed at kids five and up, so far The Foos has been downloaded 700,000 times in 150 countries.
Recently, for “Computer Science Education Week,” Google celebrated ‘50 years of kids coding’ with an interactive Google Doodle in the form of a kid-friendly coding game featuring a hopping rabbit you have to “program” to collect carrots. (You can play an archived version of that game here.)
Some critics say preschool is too young to start coding, but what’s true is that when offered at a preschool level, coding has never been more accessible. And it’s not all software-based; just take a look at these 8 cool toys that make learning to code fun for kids of all ages. There’s even a robotic-caterpillar, called the Think & Learn Code-a-pillar, designed for kids aged 3-6. For skeptical parents, the harm seems less-than-benign when you consider the alternative: a toy or video game that has no educational value to speak of.