Kids Might Close Government’s IT Talent Gap

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Technology literacy rates are on the rise, likely due to the emphasis placed on STEM education in schools.

Despite efforts from nearly every sector, the critical shortage of IT workers in the United States continues to grow. The Computing Technology Industry Association's latest data showed that there were 301,873 cybersecurity job openings nationwide between April and March of last year. This included 13,610 openings for government jobs. And there is little doubt that when this year’s numbers are available, they will either be unchanged or perhaps worse than before. In fact, market researcher Cybersecurity Ventures projects that there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs globally by 2021.

The fact that government is competing with private industry for a limited pool of skilled talent makes it even more difficult, as agencies often don’t have deep pockets like many technology firms to draw talent. Government is trying. The Homeland Security Department listed filling technology jobs as one of its top priorities during last year’s cybersecurity awareness month activities. Various government agencies have also discussed everything from getting more flexibility to pay cybersecurity workers above the typical general schedule levels to relaxing telecommuting restrictions to make government IT jobs more attractive.

Really, anything the government can do to recruit IT workers is a good thing, but these moves help an agency poach a few workers destined for the private sector. They do nothing to expand the general pool of IT workers.

The only thing that is going to reduce the shortage overall is finding or creating more workers. That can be done by looking for people with technology aptitude in nontraditional places like with retiring military personnel and then training them for a new career. That will make a dent but the country also needs to look to younger generations.

Getting children and teens interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields is an ongoing educational effort nationwide. It’s one of the few ways that our nation can maintain our role as leaders in advanced fields like technology and engineering. And, if those efforts are successful, it can help to close the cybersecurity talent gap while also offering those kids good, safe and profitable careers.

We got our first glance at how successful this educational STEM program has become thanks to the release of the test scores for the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Technology and Engineering Literacy exam. The test is administered by the Education Department every four years to assess how well students understand and can use technology. It was first given in 2014, so the release of the 2018 results is really the first time that we can evaluate those efforts.

The test was given to 15,400 eighth graders in 600 schools across the country. The schools were a mix of both public and private institutions, and the kids were from a mix of various socioeconomic backgrounds and geographic areas. Basically, it was a cross-section of all students as much as possible, though the characteristics of each child were maintained along with their score. That way, the results of the assessment can give trends and general results, and also show if, say, boys are doing better than girls, or schools in the South are better teaching technology than those in Western states.

The test itself is unlike most given to students these days. It’s done on a laptop and doesn’t ask multiple choice questions. It’s not like naming the parts of a computer. Instead, students are given a scenario like trying to promote a new recreation center to local teenagers and are tasked with things like selecting the best audio clips for a podcast that will resonate with the target audience. They also do a little bit of role-playing, things like giving constructive feedback to other (computer-controlled) team members working on the same project. It’s not just about understanding how the technology works, but also how to use it to the best advantage, and how to collaborate with others in a digital environment.

The good news is that technology literacy rates are on the rise, likely due to the emphasis placed on STEM education in schools. In 2014, the number of kids who were rated as having high proficiency in technology was 43 percent. In 2018, the number had risen to 46 percent overall. But of the students who took technology classes in school, the rate jumped to 57 percent, compared to 43 percent of students who did not. That means we probably need to offer more STEM classes, and to younger students.

Another interesting thing about the national assessment is that girls did slightly better than boys in terms of technology literacy. Diving into the reason for this, it’s clear that the girls scored better, almost eight points higher in some cases, with the collaboration parts of the exam. The boys were more apt to take credit in the scenarios for a successful outcome when it was really a team effort. From my decidedly male perspective, I’m not really sure if that is a good way to judge technology proficiency, though it probably does show ways that boys can work to become more rounded workers—and probably nicer adults.

The results revealed some gaps based on income. Not surprisingly, children from private schools and those with greater wealth did better than those from poorer and public schools. It’s clear that if we really want to fix the shortage of technology workers, that we need to reach across economic divides and expose more children to STEM programs, and as early as possible.  

Government does not always look for long term solutions to the problems of today. But in the case of the IT worker shortage, there really isn’t any other choice. We either help the young people of today move into good, high-paying and highly respected technology careers to fill those gaps, or we fall hopelessly behind the rest of the world as a technology and innovation leader. The recent national assessment shows that we are finally on the right track with grooming our kids to step into those critical positions, but also that we still have a very long way to go.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys