The software industry talks a lot about the software skills gap and the need for more coders. That’s because it’s a real concern – the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will 1.4 million open computing jobs by 2020, but only 400,000 computer science graduates with the skills to fill them. Industry and government should work together to encourage more people to consider jobs in software development, computer programming, and cybersecurity.
But the skills gap is much bigger than the Bureau’s 1.4 million estimate. We don’t just need computer science graduates to fill computing jobs; we need people with technical abilities to fill jobs in almost every industry.
Think about the last time you went to the doctor. You probably checked in online before your appointment rather than filling out paperwork in the waiting room. Your physician most likely entered notes and uploaded your results on a tablet or laptop rather than by hand. Or maybe you didn’t physically visit an office and instead spoke with a doctor via video from anywhere in the world. All of these improvements are made possible by software and require a certain level of technical proficiency from your doctor and her team.
Software is transforming nearly every industry and jobs that had little overlap with tech now call for a range of digital skills. Sales associates need to operate customer service platforms. Farmers analyze data to monitor their crops. Construction engineers can tweak a building’s design on the spot and send it to the rest of the team within seconds.
The United States has many jobs like these, but employers are struggling to find qualified workers to fill them. Meanwhile, potential employees are struggling to find the resources they need to develop those skills.
So where do we start?
The US government and the businesses should work together to create policies that will help today’s workers transition smoothly and prepare the next generation for new software jobs.
First, students need better access to STEM education. According to the World Economic Forum, 65 percent of children now entering primary school will hold jobs that currently don’t exist. Those jobs will be created by advancements in software, and kids need to prepare now for those possibilities. They won’t all need computer science degrees, but basic digital literacy will be essential. Government and the private sector can help them by making STEM education a priority in K-12 schools and ensuring a baseline exposure to STEM fields in higher education.
In addition to preparing the next generation, we must ensure the current workforce has access to training as the job market evolves. Policies that help workers adapt to new professional demands ensure no one is left behind. For example, Congress should establish mid-career retraining programs to build cybersecurity and IT skills, helping match qualified workers to growing occupational fields. Targeted training and reskilling programs for transitioning military servicemen and veterans, and their families, will also help fill the gap and create new opportunities.
We also need to consider whether our education model should change. Majoring in computer science shouldn’t be a prerequisite to a career involving tech; an apprenticeship can be an even better way to gain experience in the field. Boot camps, online courses, community colleges, and alternative technical schools can each help reach new students and tailor education to their own needs and pace. Policymakers should increase investments in these programs, as well as expand and strengthen technical schools to make them more accessible.
None of these advances will be possible without access to technology. Today, more than a third of Americans don’t have high-speed Internet. The government should develop a near-term plan to remedy this by investing in Internet infrastructure in underserved areas (especially in classrooms) and work with the private sector to ensure affordable access.
While we work to increase STEM education and expand retraining, high-skilled immigration can also help us close the skills gap and keep jobs in our country. Responsible immigration policy can enable every US industry to recruit the best and brightest to fill high-demand jobs and contribute to American innovation, keeping the United States as a leader of economic competitiveness. Strengthening the H-1B visa program and protecting the future of DREAMers are good places to start.
Our economy is rapidly changing and American workers in every industry need to develop new skill sets to keep pace. Policymakers and businesses must work together to help them. In the future, every job may be a software job – we must make sure our workforce is prepared.
** This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill on May 7, 2018. **