SALT LAKE CITY — There are about 5,000 open computing jobs in Utah right now — almost triple the average demand rate for other industries — but there aren’t enough qualified workers to fill those jobs.
That “talent gap,” as the tech world calls it, is only likely to grow if there’s no intervention.
But only 32 schools in Utah offer an AP Computer Science course, and only 376 AP Computer Science exams were administered in 2018, according to research compiled by nonprofit Code.org.
Utah’s fast-growing tech companies have been aware of the gap for a while as they scramble to find employees to fill their ever-expanding needs, but research shows that unless children are exposed to computer science at an early age, they’re much less likely to choose it as a career.
That’s why, on Monday, Utah tech leaders donated $4 million to launch a computer science fund — the first of its kind in the nation. Gov. Gary Herbert also declared the second week of December Computer Science Education Week and recommended that the Utah Legislature appropriate $10.2 million in the upcoming state budget for computer science education.
“Our economy has changed and shifted dramatically within the last generation, and it will continue to shift and modify in the next generation,” Herbert said during the Monday morning news conference. “Our education system needs to reflect that change so that we have skills being taught that reflect the demands of the current marketplace today.”
The Silicon Slopes community and the state of Utah jointly set a goal awhile back to make computer science education available in all Utah schools by 2022.
About a year ago, Herbert recommended the Legislature appropriate $3.9 million in the state’s budget for computer science education after joining forces with thousands of business leaders to sign a letter of support for universal computer science education for all Utah students. Silicon Slopes’ five founders also pledged $1 million of funding each, if the Legislature would match that amount.
The Legislature eventually appropriated $3.15 million, and shortly thereafter Utah became the 12th state in the nation to adopt a “master plan” for computer science education.
As of Monday, 40 of the state’s 41 districts had created and began implementing their personalized computer science education plans, according to CEO of Utah tech company Pluralsight, Aaron Skonnard, who has led the computer science charge since the beginning. The 41st should be catching up soon, he added.
“It feels incredible when a vision starts to materialize. It brings a lot of energy and optimism that it’s really going to happen,” Skonnard said. “It’s evident we have a committed coalition to ensuring this happens. And that was not the case four years ago, and so it feels awesome.”
Fifi Teklemedhin, a local 16-year-old who became interested in coding in seventh grade, said her friends think it’s cool that she’s so accomplished in coding but don’t think it’s something they can do. She says that’s only because they haven’t had the exposure to it that she has had.
The 16-year-old says not teaching kids about computers and coding in an increasingly digital age is like failing to teach a child a language that the whole world speaks. She recommends getting kids interested in coding via something they’re already passionate about, like their phones.
The $4 million donated to the Computer Science Fund will be used to help students gain that education early on and help the districts realize their education plans, according to an emailed news release from the Community Foundation of Utah, which partnered with Silicon Slopes to create the fund.
The $4 million was donated by Skonnard; Qualtrics co-founder and CEO Ryan Smith; Domo founder and CEO Josh James; and Dave Elkington, founder and chairman of InsideSales.com (now known as XANT).
Vivint CEO Todd Pedersen also pledged $1 million with the four men in January but will not be contributing in the same way anymore, according to Skonnard.
“Giving a million dollars is a complex act, and it’s taken us almost a year to figure out how to structure it and how to house it and all those things. The thing I can assure you is Todd is completely committed to this on a personal level, and so he’s working on what’s the best mechanism for him to be involved,” Skonnard said.
And the Utah tech CEO is hoping to get others involved in the coming months and years.
“We have the $4 million completely committed and now ... at (the Silicon Slopes) Tech Summit here in a month, we’re hoping to have even more raised, and so I’m confident we’ll have more than the $5 million,” he said.
As for the $10.2 million the governor thinks the Legislature should recommend, Skonnard is “hopeful” it will actually come to fruition.
“I think we’re in a much different situation today than we were last year at this time,” he said. “I think everyone understands the issue a lot better now, and I think I’m very optimistic that we’ll come in closer to the target (funding).”