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All Minnesota students should have access to computer-science education

I believe the general lack of computer-science education during the formative years of our state’s young people keeps many of them from considering the benefits of a career in information technology.

MinnPost’s recent story on computer education at Chatfield Elementary in Belle Plaine ("The rise of coding: How one rural district is changing with the times") was encouraging yet frustrating. The story described how all Chatfield second-graders are learning computer coding, with plans to make coding part of the curriculum for all Belle Plaine (K-12) students next year.

Tom Salonek

I applaud these forward-thinking educators and parents who grasp the critical importance of coding education. Their tech-savvy kids will graduate not only with advanced math and logic skills, but they’ll have a compelling advantage over other students vying for desirable IT jobs with healthy salaries and family-friendly benefits.

So why am I frustrated? There are “roughly 15,000 open computing jobs” in Minnesota today, “offering an average salary of $84,705,” reports MinnPost. And Fortune magazine ranked Minnesota as the “Fastest-Growing State for Tech Jobs” in 2015. Nationally, jobs related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are projected to increase by 14 percent by 2020 (and much higher in certain sectors). Yet as the number of enticing IT career opportunities expand here and elsewhere, Minnesota’s educational leaders have failed to expand K-12 computer learning statewide. Sadly, innovators in Belle Plaine are outliers, versus the norm.

As the founder and CEO of a large Minnesota-based IT consulting and software training company, I grasp the significance of the Belle Plaine initiative. Every year we spend considerable resources simply trying to find qualified professionals to hire. Like many technology firms, we offer above average salaries and benefit packages, including a paid three-month sabbatical after seven years of service. Our people consistently vote our company a “Best Place to Work” and rarely leave.

Too few candidates

A firm like ours should have more qualified candidates than employment opportunities, yet it’s just the opposite. I believe the general lack of computer science education during the formative years of our state’s young people keeps many of them from considering the benefits of a career in information technology.

Despite the opportunities and lucrative rewards of IT careers, “only one in four Minnesota schools have taken it upon themselves to start preparing their students to fill this employee gap,” reports MinnPost.

I’m hopeful the times are a’changin.

President Barack Obama recently announced an ambitious “Computer Science for All” funding initiative that – if approved by Congress – will allocate $4 billion in funding for states and $100 million directly for school districts. Whether or not that happens, I don’t believe Minnesota should wait. Gov. Mark Dayton, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, state and local board of education members, state legislators, teachers, parents, business people and students all should push to make the Belle Plaine approach to computer education the norm for every school district in our state – now!

Would help diversity efforts

Beyond helping frustrated IT employers, making computer programming a K-12 education requirement would encourage more women and people of color to enter this lucrative and exciting field. Today, 92 percent of software developers are male. Common sense tells us that 12 years of compulsory computer language education would level the IT playing field for all students, regardless of race, gender or socio-economic backgrounds.

If Minnesota’s leaders would champion K-12 computer-science education for every public school student, many bright Minnesotans would enjoy fulfilling, stable and financially rewarding IT careers in our state. What’s more, Minnesota would leapfrog ahead of domestic and international competitors in research, health care, business and many other areas where STEM skills count.

Of course, not every student will want to pursue an IT career, but mandatory K-12 computer education would ensure that all our students graduate with strong “numeracy” skills. Such skills would enhance their performance in many other careers, not to mention in every day life where fluency in the language of numbers is as important as traditional “literacy” (reading and writing).

Think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill? Consider a recent test of adults in 24 countries on their basic numeracy skills. Administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, people were asked questions about odometer readings and “sell-by” tags. According to a story in The New York Times (2/28/16), “Americans ended an embarrassing 22nd, behind Estonia and Cypress.”

Follow Estonia's example?

Maybe Minnesotans can take a page from Estonia’s playbook. This tiny country made a conscious choice to embrace technology to propel itself out of poverty after throwing off the yoke of Soviet domination in 1991. What was Estonia’s first decision after finally achieving economic and political freedom? It made computer-coding education a requirement for every student beginning in kindergarten through their senior year in high school. Not coincidentally, Skype was created in Estonia and the country currently ranks number one in WiFi availability and quality.

If we’re not careful, smart young Estonians – and other tech savvy people from all over the world – may land lucrative IT jobs in our state as people already here move to back of the line.

Tom Salonek is the founder and CEO of Intertech, a St. Paul-based IT consulting and software training company. Salonek is the author of "The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership." He can be reached at tsalonek@intertech.com.

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Comments (13)

Do you mean that you absolutely cannot find employees

or that you cannot find employees at the salaries you are willing to pay?

When I was teaching on the college level in the 1980s and early 1990s, my classes were full of computer science majors. It was THE hot major. The oldest of them are now in their fifties, and the youngest are now in their forties.

While I no longer live in the region where I taught, I keep running into middle-aged IT professionals who complain that no one will hire them except for short-term projects. Their supposedly "in-demand" profession brings them lay-offs and months of futile job hunting. If there are 15,000 jobs going begging, no one has told them.

Now you may offer the excuse that "their skills are outdated," but seriously, are you saying that someone with a degree in computer science who stayed in the profession for several years cannot learn new software or hardware? How long would it take? A few weeks?

I am going to leave you with harsh words. I suppose it's easy to hire young Indians (I''ve seen Tata Consulting's tower in Bloomington, and I could point out the apartment building where dozens of Indian H1Bs live) or Estonians on the H1B program and pay them what sounds like a lordly sum from the vantage point of someone from a poorer country. But you, like all the others who use the H1B program for cheap, captive labor, are committing economic treason. You are beggaring existing American IT professionals to enhance your own bottom line.

Furthermore, the actions of America's IT companies are in themselves discouraging American students from studying computer science. They have families and neighbors. They have seen their older relatives and other people in the community get dumped from lucrative jobs into the world of "consultancy." Why should they enroll in a major that is difficult to complete but promises no long-term stability?

Here's a wild and crazy thought. Take another look at those forty- and fifty-year-old computer science majors. As a training firm, you should be able to get them up to speed in no time.

Or, if you're feeling altruistic and are truly and unselfishly interested in America's economic future, go into our poorest urban and rural schools and ask the math teachers who their most talented students are. Set up summer programs for them at your own expense, with the promise that anyone who completes your three-year summer program is guaranteed a PAID summer internship at your company while they major in computer science in college.

Best of all, such a program would be tax-deductible, either as a charitable contribution or as employee training. (Ask your accountant.)

I'm old enough to remember when corporations hired liberal arts graduates and trained them in-house. I recall seeing a job announcement in which a major firm said that it would hire people on two-year probation and pay for them to earn an MBA at night, after which they would become permanent hires. So maybe my idea isn't so wild and crazy after all.

What your proposal amounts to, however, is a wish for the taxpayers to finance job training for your company and others like it. So what happens when these eager young computer-trained people grow older and start thinking about how much money they will need to raise their children and finance their retirement? Will you dump them and start over with some other malleable 18-year-olds?

Ms. Sandness is Misinformed

Thanks for reading the article Ms. Sandness. Here are a few clarifications:

--The bulk of our technical professionals are paid very well with great benefits and are in the bucket you describe as "those forty- and fifty-year-old computer science majors"

--You're going to leave me with "harsh words." Hmmm... we're not Tata. Our business isn't built on the H1B model. Some quick research on your behalf would have uncovered this fact. You say you were a college professor?

--We have paid internships and have employed a cross-section of different types of students.

--Per altruism, we have a STEM computer science scholarship fully funded by our firm.

The article's purpose was to reinforce the importance of computer science. As someone who "taught at the college level", I'm surprised you didn't do any research, were quick to judge, and wouldn't be behind a concept that seems so simple and good for today's youth.

Glad to hear it

Sorry to have misjudged your company.

But some of the other members of your industry have been known to engage in less ethical practices.

Civility is impressive!

WOW! I have to commend both of you for your civility in these follow up comments. Mr Solanek defended himself and his company without resorting to insults. By responding this way he left the door open for Ms Sandness to apologize and walk back what she had said about his company. And that is what she did and in between is common ground and respect. This is an excellent example of productive, professional communication which isn't prevalent in the comments section!

My guess is you two probably have more in common than you realize! How about lunch? Ms Sandness' anger and views are real and need to be stated in a larger picture of the upheaval in the IT field where the ground is shifting constantly under the industry. One minute you saved the company with innovative solutions the next you're job is outsourced to save money for said company THEY said you saved!

I think Mr Solanek was just trying to turn young people on to something that he himself has found rewarding. Another aspect would be to utilize the squeezed out IT elders(meant in a respectful way in deference to the depth of their knowledge) as mentors for this new wave of coding education. Problem-solving to figure out some of my own IT problems is rewarding but showing these skills to others and passing that knowledge on really is the BEST reward for me!

Yea!

Verily...

Thanks

Thanks for reading the article and chiming in Jim.

Still cannot understand

What exactly are we to believe will happen to these "above average salaries and family friendly benefits" when IT firms have millions of freshly minted graduates to choose from? Hey I suppose the unlucky can always go add another useless app to our smartphone store. Apparently the IT set ignored the age old wisdom of placing all ones eggs in a single basket.

Thanks for Reading, Missed the Point

Thanks for reading the article Matt. While I appreciate it, you missed the point...

I grew up on a farm, have family in trucking/transportation, and know many people in many different professions. For all of us, computers/IT is part of our lives. Having IT be part of the school curriculum prepares all of us for the future.

I didn't say everyone should be an IT professional (per your freshly minted comment). I said, ""Of course, not every student will want to pursue an IT career, but mandatory K-12 computer education would ensure that all our students graduate with strong “numeracy” skills."

Yes, got the point

Disagree as to the primacy of "numeracy". While the convienience of our technological advancements are nice, they've made us dependent. I for one would value those with an ability to be productive in spite of the ability to understand the " language of numbers" (a very apt description by the way) as opposed to another cookie cutter cog, churned out to complete tasks in the exact same way as all the others. Perhaps it's a personal bias, but as one who, despite decades of trying with extra assistance (tutors and the like), always found this language undecipherable, this insistence that ALL MUST be fluent is a little off putting. We've survived millennia without our fancy toys, we'll survive millennia more if they were to go away. To me, its just a worldview, like any other, attempting to displace all else and assert dominance.

A slice of Raspberry Pi?

Has anyone noticed the Raspberry Pi phenomena in the UK? This little computer($36), the size of a deck of cards, was developed specifically for coding education. It is being integrated into their schools and is immensely popular. It has hdmi and can be hooked up to any flat tv so you don't need an expensive monitor. Any left over usb mouse or keyboard will work and you can use any cord from that drawer full of micro-usb power cords for all your old electronic junk. It is an open-source linux operating system which basically means it is 100% code-friendly and customizable! It can be programmed and used for an incredible array of real-life projects. It makes coding an absolute blast!

Good Point / Resource

Thanks for sharing the info. on Raspberry Pi Jim. It's definitely an affordable, flexible resource. Thanks again, Tom

Thank you for your advocacy

Mr. Salonek,

I appreciate your advocacy and support for increasing computer science for all. I also appreciate your work with your scholarship program and work with SciTechsperience for Minnesota students. As you point out, there is a gap when we look at students who are both able and interested in broader STEM Fields (http://www.mncompass.org/education/stem/excite-challenge-prepare). When we focus that on computer science I am sure it only widens. You are also accurate that we have a gender gap in computer science. In 2012 2600 post-secondary degrees were earned by men and 700 were earned by women. Despite these gaps, I am encouraged by the amount of opportunities and growth we are seeing in education today for computer science and am confidence these numbers are shifting. Equity is also at the heart of most of these initiatives and discussion with a key focus.

Robotics design and programming is at an all-time high. Among the four robotics programs (FLL, FTC, FRC, and VEX) almost 1,500 teams were active in competitions throughout Minnesota last year. FLL, with the youngest of the participants, had the highest percentage of girls - about a third of the participants.

Project Lead the Way continues to grow in Minnesota - the two fastest programs, Launch - an elementary engineering and computer programming program, and high school computer science - with a new alignment with the AP framework to allow students to do well with the AP CS exam, being closely tied to computer science. Minnesota has been active working with PLTW and has two MnSCU campuses and the U of M providing professional development and support.

Code Savvy, the Works Museum, Leonardo's Basement, the Bakken Museum, and others have continued to provide great programs, camps, and opportunities out of school time. The number of students that have engaged in their CS programs after school, on weekends, and summers have been growing exponentially over the past several years.

Code Savvy has also engaged in teacher professional development with a leadership cohort of over 25 teachers representing Minnesota from boarder to boarder that are supporting training K-8 teachers throughout the state. The Gopher State Computer Science Teachers Association and Code.org have also been active supporting teachers from pre-K to high schools. This week alone the Code.org trainer has four workshops throughout the southern part of the state starting today in Marshall.

Minnesota, through legislative leadership and funding, signed a contract with Mouse, Inc., a non-profit from New York with almost 20 years of experience in IT and CS training for youth, to provide high school curriculum and competency based badging for over 200 Minnesota high schools (http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/state-of-minnesota-selects-mouse...) . Half of these schools are from greater Minnesota who have not been able to provide opportunities previously.

Finally Minnesota has partnered with SciMathMN to bring together the CS community from K-12 to post-secondary to industry in April (www.scimathmn.org) for the annual STEM Network Conference. We are excited to highlight programs like Chatfield while engaging in broad conversations on how we can fill the CS employment gap today and in the future. It would be great to have you join us!

These are just a sampling of initiatives, but is only the surface. I am thankful for dedicated people like you and companies like yours that are committed to challenging the system and supporting innovative change. While I am proud of Minnesota's education and business tradition, we have a long way to go. We have many districts and schools leading the way, but many more that still are trying to navigate forward. Equity still needs focus and attention.

With education we often need to have patient urgency. We are moving forward and I am optimistic Minnesota will be an innovative tech state going into the future due to the dedication of educators, parents, and business leaders such as yourself. I would be happy to follow up with you in the future if you would like to learn more about any of our state initiatives or discuss new opportunities.

Best,

Doug

Lots of Great Examples and Resources

Mr. Paulson,

Thanks for sharing all this great information. You're spot on that good work is being done but there's more yet to do!

Thanks for your commitment to helping the students in our state,
Tom