“My kids are here today and I thought it would be good for me to learn too,” one parent told me as people came in and gathered around computers. Ranging in age from 4 to 70, they clustered in groups: parents sitting with their children, students teaming up with their classmates, even mid-level managers and budding entrepreneurs streaming in to learn how to code.
Some 300 folks ventured out one Saturday in December to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College campuses across our community to participate in Hour of Code, a quick, fun and immersive introduction to learn the basics of coding. Community volunteers helped defuse the intimidation that sometimes surrounds learning how
to code by using popular teaching games like Minecraft.
The demand for these skills isn’t a part of some distant future; they are needed today. Wisconsin has more than 6,200 open computer jobs. These are good-paying jobs
with an average salary of $75,912. Thousands of jobs going unfilled at a time when people are hungry for good jobs is more than a paradox — it’s a barometer of the challenging landscape we face in bridging the gap to prepare a local workforce with the skills needed to succeed with employers.
Events like an Hour of Code are part of a growing effort to expose people to digital skills and computer science education, especially given the importance of preparing our youth to be future ready. That’s because the value of teaching young people digital skills goes beyond tech jobs. Our students will need them as traditional industries undertake digital transformations and retool their operations to leverage technology.
“There are few jobs today that don’t require a certain level of digital literacy, and as technology continues to rapidly evolve in the workplace, education in this area is crucial,” said Julie Ebben-Matzke, an associate dean at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
Like many other states, our students face a shortage of computer science teachers, let alone a lack of funds for hiring and training these teachers. In 2016, Wisconsin’s universities only graduated two new teachers prepared to teach computer science and only 13 percent of schools offered an AP computer science course.
And yet, we all recognize the value of computer science education and consistently want greater access for students to learn these skills. That is why the business community, nonprofit groups and educators are working to bring more digital skills to the classroom and drive a bigger economic impact to benefit our region. The NEW IT Alliance, TechSpark Wisconsin and school leaders are developing a Computer Science Advisory Board in each district to better define computer science education pathways.
“Closing the skills gap starts in the K-12 space,” said Greg Bianchi, Microsoft Philanthropies senior program officer. “Computer science education is fundamental when it comes to preparing students for success in a 21st Century economy.”
Programs like TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools), which puts technology into classrooms to teach computer science, are seeing results and led to the doubling of the number of AP computer science students in Northeast Wisconsin.
Opportunity is often cloaked in challenge. Educating students with digital skills will give them a head start to pursue opportunities or even spur their entrepreneurship here that can take root and benefit our entire community.
Michelle Schuler is manager of TechSpark Wisconsin and a co-founder and past president of Women In Technology Wisconsin.