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September 13, 2015 /

Should Learning How to Code Be Mandatory in the U.S.?

With International Programmer’s Day upon us, we take a look at the future of programming in America. Other countries have started making coding a mandatory part of the curriculum. With such high job demand, should the U.S. follow suit?

Despite America’s role as an international technology powerhouse, filling jobs in programming and computer sciences remains a challenge across the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that at least one million programming jobs will go unfilled in America by 2020, and the White House estimates there are 545,000 unfilled IT jobs in the U.S. right now.

Yet this is hardly unique to America. Countries across the world are facing similar challenges and several have responded by making it mandatory for students to learn how to code in school. Is it time for the United States to do the same?

The ABCs of IT

Estonia was the first country to do it. The birthplace of Skype, Estonia began teaching coding to students as young as six in 2012. Last year, England overhauled its curriculum as well, making it mandatory to teach students between the ages of five and 16 how to code, a curriculum that becomes more advanced as students progress through their education. Finland expects to introduce mandatory coding in 2016, and similar discussions are happening in countries around the world including Italy, Holland and Australia.

Yet North America is falling behind. While Obama has made statements supporting the idea of mandatory coding programs in the United States, these conversations are much less advanced here. Only 26 states recognize high school computer science classes as credits toward math or science graduation requirements—if these courses are offered at all.

Some cities aren’t waiting for the U.S. to catch up and are drawing inspiration from overseas. Chicago has introduced a plan that will see coding and computer sciences become mandatory for high school students within the next three years. Students will be unable to graduate without those credits, the mayor said. In five years, at least 50 percent of high schools in Chicago will offer advanced placement computer science courses.

Making Coding an “Official Language”

Up north in Canada, a slightly different dialogue is taking place.

Bitmaker Labs, a tech bootcamp company located in Toronto, has launched a petition to make coding the third official language of Canada (after English and French). The “tongue in cheek” petition hasn’t accrued many signatures, yet it’s another example of how technology companies are driving this conversation across the globe. These employers understand that vacancies are simply not good for business.

“It should be as important as our official languages,” says Craig Hunter, CEO of Bitmaker Labs, noting that the gap is getting bigger in Canada too—especially as companies like Hootsuite and Shopify expand. Bitmaker Labs is Canada’s largest tech bootcamp, but it’s not the only one. These programs are expanding across the country—and the world.

“There’s no better time to learn how to code,” Hunter says. “It’s the career path to be in today.”

Breaking Down Gender Barriers

Of course another good thing about mandatory coding is it could start to level the playing field. Countries across the world have struggled to increase female participation in STEM careers, but by making it mandatory women will be better positioned and more informed about the opportunities that these skills provide.

According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women held about a quarter of all professional computing jobs in 2014. While the number of women employed in this sector is increasing, there is still work to be done in encouraging women of color to pursue computer sciences. Only five percent of the computing workforce consisted of Asian women, while three percent were African-American women and a mere one percent were Hispanic women.

Companies such as Adobe have responded by introducing programs designed to address these issues. Adobe’s Youth Coding Initiative is just one example. Having partnered with organizations such as Girls Who Code, Adobe hopes to teach girls everything from graphic design to mobile app development. Mentors from Adobe work hands on with the girls to help them hone and develop their skills all while inspiring passion and excitement for the industry.

Reasons to Learn How to Code

At the end of the day, this shortage represents a huge opportunity. Here are just some of the arguments for pursuing computer sciences:

  • Jobs are aplenty
  • These skills are in demand
  • Salaries are competitive and tend to be significantly higher than the national average
  • Coding skills can be combined with any industry, meaning you are not limited to tech companies. Imagine designing apps for your favourite brand, or using technology to help solve world or community problems
  • It’s the best way to bring your ideas to life
  • Knowledge is power. Having an understanding of how things are built can increase your value as an employee even if you don’t desire a full-time coding position, helping you get further in your career
  • Many consider coding an essentially skill going forward

Bootcamp courses typically have an associated tuition fee, but many offer scholarships and financing in an effort to make the education more accessible—especially for women.

And while having some sort of formal training will give you a leg up, there are plenty of online resources available to help you too—and many are available for free. Platforms like Coursera also offer various computer sciences and programming courses, including specializations in programming languages such as Java. Adobe offers certification opportunities too, which could improve your job prospects even further.

Now, remember what today is and don’t forget to Hug 4 pr0gr4mm3r!