How America Can Get More Start-Up Talent

Build it right at home: Congress should encourage public schools to teach American children how to code just after they learn to multiply.
June 21, 2012 |
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During the past month, a handful of Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate reached across the partisan divide to introduce the Startup Act 2.0, a bill to promote entrepreneurship and create jobs in the United States by easing restrictions on immigration. It's a great bill, but it could be better. In addition to its immigration measures, it should also advance a plan to boost entrepreneurship and technical skills at home. Here's one important way to do that: Encourage public schools to teach American children how to code just after they learn to multiply.

Despite the nation's unemployment rate, the Startup Act rests on the assumption that the United States lacks the talent to fill today's demand for high-skilled engineers and entrepreneurs. That assumption is probably right: A report released by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Partnership for New York City predicts that by 2018, there will be 800,000 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs in the United States that require a master's degree or higher -- and only around 550,000 American-graduates with this training.

This scarcity of talent has received a lot of attention in connection with high-flying Silicon Valley companies: Google threw around $100 and $50 million offers to keep their top talent from fleeing to Twitter, and some companies pay tens of thousands to recruiters for even junior talent. Startups feel the same pressure: TechCrunch describes a "war for talent" among young firms, and anyone who has chatted with the CEO of a fast-growing tech company knows how much time they devote to identifying and wooing top technical talent.

The Startup Act addresses this shortage of qualified workers through immigration reform: The bill creates an entrepreneurship visa for certain immigrants starting a company, and also provides a five year visa for immigrants who receive advanced degrees in the U.S. for science, technology, engineering, and math and then work in those fields.

But the Startup Act should give all Americans, not just immigrants, a better shot at being tomorrow's engineers and entrepreneurs. And that opportunity could begin at a young age with education in computer programming.

Students and parents expect a tax-supported education to provide. In a 2010 poll, almost 80 percent of Americans said our public schools are not preparing children for high-skilled jobs of the future. American schools have been criticized for teaching kids how to follow orders and to be good employees, rather than to think independently, creatively, and with an entrepreneurial mindset. But, even if our schools were merely aiming low and training "employees" and not "leaders," they'd be failing at that task, too. In international rankings of the OECD countries, American public schools rank 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math.

The Startup Act can help tackle this problem by incentivizing and funding public schools to bring computer programming -- or coding -- into classrooms. The goal would not be to mold every child into the next Mark Zuckerberg, but to ensure everyone in our society can better understand the code that affects their lives. Thinking like a programmer is not only helpful to succeed in any technical career, it will also become integral to simply navigating our increasingly digital world. Code consists of languages that can be taught just as we already teach the "language" of math, the language of music, and the language of Spanish vocabulary and grammar. Students could decide whether or not they want to pursue greater fluency and expertise in coding (or Spanish), and (if nothing else) students would benefit from the distinct problem-solving framework of a coding mentality -- which may be a more entrepreneurial mentality than memorizing the dates of famous battles in the Thirty Years War. It would help students to think critically -- to analyze and solve problems.

In the post-industrial economy, ideas and great minds often provide far greater return on investment than any other resources or capital investments. As a writer on TechCrunch observed about technology startups: "It's well worth finding a new approach to not only courting that talent, but producing it." The same is true about nations. The United States should not just court talent. We must also produce more of it.

The congressional champions for our nation's startups and innovators should go one step further than immigration reform and include a strong pillar for ensuring that we produce talent in America over the long-term.

Congress can implement this proposal in many different ways. While states generally determine curricula, the federal government often funds specific programs at schools that seek the help. Startup Act 3.0 could fund grants for expanding programming classes, beginning with small-scale pilot programs, such as funding programming teachers or "programmers-in-residence" at ten middle schools in each state and ten more in Washington, D.C. Five hundred pilot programs would result in a lot of experimentation, feedback, and best practices. Additionally, Congress can encourage public schools to partner with virtual programmers-in-residence through funding access to companies like Udacity and Codecademy, or fund crowd-sourced learning materials, all of which could most benefit schools in more rural locations.

All of these measures would be a good place to begin bringing our primary and secondary education into the 21st century.

Just as senators from both parties are coming together to agree on the principles of high-skilled immigration in the Startup Act, they should join forces to support "code as a Second Language" as a way to develop more domestic talent, and more effective citizens, for today's world -- and their own.

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