How America Can Get More Start-Up Talent

By Marvin Ammori

Marvin Ammori is a First Amendment lawyer with his own law firm and a legal fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative.

June 21 2012. (Originally published by The Atlantic)

Build it right at home: Congress should encourage public schools to teach American children how to code (computer programming) just after they learn to multiply.

During the past month, a handful of Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate reached across the partisan divide to introduce the Start-Up 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 Start-Up 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 about 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 (R800 million) and $50 million (R400 million) offers to keep their top talent from fleeing to Twitter, and some companies pay tens of thousands to recruiters for even junior talent. Start-ups 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 Start-Up 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 US for science, technology, engineering and mathematics and then work in those fields.

But the Start-Up 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 for this kind of training. 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 criticised 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 (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, American public schools rank 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in maths.

The Start-Up Act can help tackle this problem by incentivising and funding public schools to bring computer programming – or coding – into classrooms. The goal would not be to mould 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 maths, 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 memorising the dates of famous battles in the Thirty Years War. It would help students to think critically – to analyse 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 start-ups: “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 start-ups 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 programmes at schools that need help. Start-Up Act 2.0 could fund grants for expanding programming classes, beginning with small-scale pilot programmes, such as funding programming teachers or “programmers-in-residence” at 10 middle schools in each state and 10 more in Washington DC. Five hundred pilot programmes would result in a lot of experimentation, feedback and best practice. Additionally, Congress can encourage public schools to partner with virtual programmers-in-residence through funding access to companies like Udacity and Codecademy, or crowd funding-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 Start-Up 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.

Note: This article has been edited to conform with Social Review’s style guide. Vusumzi Nobadula, Executive Editor.

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