Last year, in an attempt to address the growing STEM skills gap in Britain, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) led a collaborative effort by 29 organizations to give every 7th grader in the country a pocket-sized programmable computer that helps teach coding in a simple, fun, and accessible way.
Known as a micro:bit, the small device is innovative--and so is the effort to put one in the hands of every 7th grader. The BBC's initiative caught the eye of the EDC Business and Community Partners, a local nonprofit economic development organization in St. Charles County, a suburban community just outside of St. Louis. The organization raised the funds to purchase micro:bits for a pilot program focused on 25 middle-school classrooms, with the eventual goal of purchasing the device for every 7th grader attending the county's schools.
In addition to the school purchases, the organization also plans on buying micro:bits for organizations that serve disadvantaged youth, including the Boys and Girls Club.
The skills gap the BBC is trying to solve in the UK and the skills gap the EDC Community Partners is trying to solve in the suburbs of St. Louis are similar. In the United States, just 25% of schools offer computer science courses. In 2015, there were more than 600,000 open jobs in computer science fields, with slightly more than 40,000 computer science graduates entering the workforce that year.
The high number of good computer science jobs and the relatively low number of workers with relevant skills would seem to be an easy way to match unmet needs with opportunities. However, with technology-based education initiatives likely to see a reduction in federal and state funding in the coming years, the public sector will likely not have the resources to step in and help bridge the gap between a lack of skilled workers and unfilled jobs.
That's what makes the work of local organizations like the EDC Community Partners so important. Not only does it help build an educational foundation that will eventually create skilled employees (as well as future innovators and entrepreneurs), it also creates a model for other communities to follow.
"If local communities want to be economically competitive, they need to have workers with a strong STEM foundation," said Randy Schilling, chair of the organization's Education Committee. Schilling is also the founder of several successful technology businesses, as well as the owner and founder of a startup incubator. "We have to find ways to prepare our children to get the jobs that will be available 10 years from now, when they will enter a workforce that looks much different than today's workforce."
Despite all the predictions about what the workforce of the future could look like, no one really knows how automation and artificial intelligence will impact the labor force.
But we do know that employees need to know more about how the machines that run our economy and impact our society work.
And giving each 7th grader a micro:bit is a great start.