Cracking the Tech Job Talent Crunch by Teaching Kids to Code

Most of our children are not focused on becoming creators of technology. They spend countless hours playing games, with little interest in what's powering them. They're incredibly interested in and inspired by their devices -- why can't we connect the dots and turn that into a huge learning opportunity?
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female pupil in school computer ...
female pupil in school computer ...

For all the parents losing sleep over their kids' prospects in such a tightfisted job market, I can see at least one recourse: teach them how to code. The earlier, the better.

One of the few positive trends born out by the U.S. economy in the last few years is the tremendous growth in tech jobs. It's a seller's market for programmers, developers and computer science grads, many of whom draw dozens of top-notch offers from employers who can't seem to fill positions fast enough. Our educational system hasn't kept pace with the demand, yet our schools still peg the programming languages as a lower priority than, say, the Spanish or German languages.

Consider Developer Auction, an online site that literally auctions off tech professionals; starved for tech talent, companies bid top dollar for developers who often get overwhelmed by recruiters and headhunters. The site accounted for more than $100 million in job offers in its first two auction rounds, which included the likes of Quora, Dropbox and Facebook. Coders are calling the shots.

None of this is likely to change. The International Data Corporation is projecting more than $2 trillion in IT spending worldwide in 2013. By 2020, we can expect almost 760,000 new jobs to be created in computer and information technology, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. How we can staff all those new jobs with the mere 40,000 bachelor degrees in computer science that American universities are estimated to award in the same time period? We can't expect heightened interest in those degrees if we haven't at least piqued that interest -- much less initiated vocational training -- during the K-12 stages.

It's getting to the point where the industry, much like the NBA or NFL, is scouting -- and subsequently courting -- young developers in the making. This means that it's more important than ever to teach kids these technical skills at a very young age.

Don't be intimidated by the idea; if they're old enough to type, they're old enough to code.

When I was 10 years old, for instance, my father bought one of the first Apple II computers. As an accountant with zero programming experience, he was intrigued by the strange new device. He believed it would change our future and encouraged us to do some exploring.

At first, we spent most of our time playing video games and learning how to write school papers through a word processor. Although it seemed powerful at the time, it didn't take long before we reached the limits of the available programs. This led to our first foray into programming. My dad explained that I could learn how to write code that would tell the computer what to do (including creating my own videogames). This was essentially my first lesson in vocational education en route to a bachelor's degree in computer science.

Limited only by our imaginations, we pored over books and manuals. Before long, we were crafting our first programs, including one that could guess a user's age, and another that could draw fun things on the screen. We were in a whole new world. Beyond just acquiring a new skill, we had successfully transformed ourselves from consumers of technology into creators of technology. It was invigorating.

This process planted seeds within me that I'm still harvesting to this day, 30 years later. Now I'm driven by the idea of nurturing a similar enthusiasm among new generations of budding young minds. To this end, my online training company, Pluralsight, recently released several free programming courses designed specifically for kids. Employing graphics-based interfaces, such as the Scratch program developed at MIT, the courses make programming concepts accessible to kids as young as 8 years old. Some of the most brilliant coders and educators I've ever met have worked to create curriculum that would make sense not only to children but to their teachers and parents, as well.

My own boys, ages 14 and 11, flew through the courses. Once they realized they could create their own games, I saw in them the same spark I felt 30 years ago -- only they are moving much faster and creating things I could only dream of back then.

I see young kids everywhere operating small devices exponentially more powerful than my first computer. They know how to navigate the latest phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers better than most of their elders. They are natives in this modern world -- born into it -- while the rest of us are more like immigrants struggling to become fluent in the language of technology.

However, despite their obvious technological proficiency, most of our children are not focused on becoming creators of technology. They spend countless hours a day playing games, with little interest in what's actually powering them. They are incredibly interested in and inspired by their devices and apps -- why can't we connect the dots and turn that into a huge learning opportunity?

As a nation, we still seem to be lacking a crucial ingredient in sparking our students' interest in engineering educations. U.S. students recently ranked Twenty-fifth in math proficiency, and 17th in science, out of the 31 countries analyzed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. All the while, engineering degrees now account for seven of the top 10 highest-paid college degrees. Computer engineering yields an average starting salary of $71,000, while computer science, the most lucrative non-engineering degree, starts at an average of about $65,000.

We can start catching up by treating programming like any other subject taught in elementary school -- similar to, say, Spanish class. Parents can take time in the evenings to walk through the basics with their children. They can also encourage their local schools to include a coding course in their core curriculum.

We have ample opportunity to bequeath a bright future to our children. Start them on the path toward a career that will desperately need their contributions.