Microsoft president pushes for more computer science education in North Dakota

“There are currently over 900 open jobs in computing throughout the state of North Dakota,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said. “Last year the state produced 116 computer science graduates to fill those jobs.”

This was the conundrum Smith presented as part of his keynote at the State of Technology, hosted by the Fargo-Moorhead Chamber of Commerce on August 16, 2016. In the tech sector, “it’s sometimes easier to create a job, than it sometimes is to fill one,” he said. “That is one of the great societal opportunities and challenges of our day.”

It’s a challenge facing not just North Dakota, but the entire nation, he said.

“There are 600,000 computing jobs open in the US,” he said. “But last year the entire nation produced only 40,000 computer science graduates to fill them. This gap is getting wider each year.”

For Smith, the solution to the problem is clear.

“This needs to start with the next generation of people,” he said.

This means taking a closer look at higher education and at high school programs, Smith said. Only 4,310 of the 37,000 high schools in America offered AP computer science as a course last year, he said.

At Microsoft, they have a few programs in place to encourage student interest in computer science. One of those is called TEALS (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools), wherein Microsoft employees will come into the classroom and team teach computer science courses.

This program launched successfully at West Fargo Highschool in 2014. Web design teacher Janae Helvik, who worked with Microsoft volunteers in the program, said the program is a response to the lack of computer science majors in college.

“Technology is one of the 21st century skills,” Helvik said in an article by the Packer. “You need technology skills. I don’t care what job you’re in, 99.9 percent of jobs that students will have in the future are going to deal with technology.”

In the past few years, other programs have sprouted both regionally and nationally in response to the need to fill computer science related jobs. The Hour of Code serves to bring a taste of computer science to everyone from kindergartners to seniors in high school. Girl Develop It has a Fargo chapter that hosts classes in HTML, CSS and Javascript, with an emphasis on encouraging women to be comfortable with coding. Other initiatives include programs like uCodegirl and Microsoft’s program, DigiGirlz.

In higher education there is a growing awareness to the issue as well. Concordia College, which cut their computer science program in 2011, has reformed and reinstated the program with an emphasis on computing and data analytics. Students will begin taking the course this Fall.

North Dakota State University offers computer science undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and Minnesota State Universty-Moorhead offers courses in computer science and information systems.

And yet, there is still a gap.

There is a plan in the works for a code school in Fargo, as announced at 1 Million Cups Fargo this summer. The model follows the success of Minneapolis-based code school, Prime Digital Academy or Chicago based Starter League, both of which have resulted in an increase in software developers and high employment rates for their students.

Smith said it can be a boot camp, a code school, or more computer science classes at local community colleges; but it needs to happen, and happen more and more in cities across the nation.

“Across the board we would say there’s a need for more investment in all the various forms of learning in helping people master this skill,” he said.

As one of the world’s largest tech giants, Microsoft has a vested interest in the issue. And with their second largest campus in the world based here in Fargo, this has a significant impact on local job creation as well. For instance, in the past year, they hired on 230 more employees to their team of 1,689 at the Fargo campus. Of that group, 51 came from 25 different states.

But it’s more than just finding employees to fill jobs. Smith drew a parallel to the late 1950s, when President Eisenhower called for a heavier emphasis on physics and mathematics education in order to respond to Sputnik. Similarly, he said, an emphasis on computer science education is needed fuel economic growth and innovation — locally, nationally, and globally.

“We have a new need and opportunity,” he said. “This is how you move society forward.”

Photo Credit: David Samson / The Forum

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

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