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The Utah Talent Dilemma & Why Tech Companies Matter In Education

by Tamara Goetz, Executive Director of Utah STEM Action Center.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 edition of Silicon Slopes Magazine.

If you are reading Silicon Slopes Magazine it is a good guess that you are familiar with the Utah technology community. It is also likely that have heard, more than once, that there is a shortage of talent for Utah companies. You may even feel the pain in your own company as you struggle to find qualified computing talent. Perhaps you have come up with creative hiring or in-house training strategies. Or maybe you have given up and are just dealing with it. But have you given any thought about WHY this problem exists? You pay well, there are plenty of jobs and companies continue to grow. You solve cool problems and yes, some of you have super cool billboards. The future is bright for the Utah technology industry. So why are we facing this talent issue?

The Education Landscape

A snapshot of computing education is a good place to start in our search for answers.

  • Nearly half of Utah high schools do not offer computer science courses
  • Of the nearly 200,000 public high schools students in Utah, only 100 students took AP CS in 2015–16 and 230 students in 2016–17
  • Only 7% of Utah high schools that offer AP courses include the Computer Science course; there are fewer AP exams taken in computer science than in any other STEM subject area
  • There is a shortage of qualified computer science teachers
  • There are few resources that allow K-8 students and teachers to explore and gain exposure to how computing intersects all areas of study and interest

It is clear that we are not getting enough students excited about taking computing courses, let alone pursuing computing career pathways. The issue is compounded by the fact that we also have a shortage of teachers that are able to teach computing courses. Many believe that basic computing skills should be treated as essential, elevated to the level of math or reading. Regardless of the prevailing opinions on whether computing is as important as math or reading, it cannot be argued that computing skills integrate across all disciplines and impact every career choice. We also know that other states are moving forward, and with a sense of purpose and urgency, to address the lack of access to computing education.

Tamara Goetz, Executive Director of Utah STEM Action Center

A Call to Action

Utah companies and the state legislature — in partnership with the Utah STEM Action Center, the Utah State Board of Education and Talent Ready Utah — have joined forces to support K-16 computing education. This year the Utah legislature approved funding for a K-16 Computing Partnership initiative. Senate Bill 190, sponsored by Senator Ralph Okerlund and Representative Brad Last, will support grants from schools and school districts to help them build out computing programs. These grants have the potential to be truly transformational for several reasons:

  • There will be a focus on helping elementary educators integrate coding into their classrooms
  • Much needed resources will be provided to 7th and 8th grade computing efforts
  • Innovative approaches will be supported to bring qualified educators into the classroom
  • An emphasis will be placed on equity and access, helping to increase participation by traditionally underrepresented students
  • Resources will reach rural districts, including access to industry support

Finally, if we are to transform how Utah grows Utah talent it will take a “full court” press by industry partners. The time to engage is now. Education partners are ready to mobilize and the state has made the initial investment by providing funding. Utah is rapidly becoming recognized as a state “that gets it” when it comes to computing education. This is not an opportunity that we can afford to waste if we want to ensure the success of Utah companies and most importantly, Utah students.

If you, or your company, is interested in finding out more about the Utah Computing Partnership please contact Lynn Purdin at the STEM Action Center (lpurdin@utah.gov).

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