One hundred years ago, people commonly built their own houses. Most of the males in that society had carpentry skills that would put the majority of today’s males to shame. By today’s definition, you might call these people general contractors, but at the time, they were just “handy.” And you had to be – if something needed to be repaired, you were going to be the one to repair it.
Today, general contractors and carpenters combined make up less than 1 percent of the workforce. But being “handy” still has its benefits. From installing your own dishwasher to refinishing your own basement, knowing how to do things yourself can save you thousands of dollars.
Fast forward to 100 years from now. What will need servicing are the highly intricate systems that will run our lives: Our intelligent thermostats, refrigerators, and entertainment systems. Even if technology continues to improve the reliability of these devices so they rarely break down, those who can code will be the ones who can tinker with them, customize them and reprogram them to do exactly what they want. Hey, doesn’t Cousin Jim know how to code in C? Can you have him come over to look at the thermostat?
People who have the knowledge and skills to get dirty in the code of a machine will be tomorrow’s version of “handy.”
But we don’t seem to be taking it that seriously.
Only 10 percent of American high schools offer a course in computer programming. Only 2,100 high schools offer the AP computer science class, out of 42,000. There are many different reasons for this, starting with our abysmal strategy of education funding in this country. But there is also a disconnect between the interests of our students, who love using computers but aren’t terribly interested in how they work, and the needs of the global economy.
You may have seen this great short film of the titans of tech talking about how they learned how to code and how important it is for today’s generation to have the same opportunity. They are speaking in terms of economic growth and how they struggle to find good engineers for Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Politicians, including the president, talk frequently about the need for students educated in the computer sciences in order to compete with India and China.
This is an economic problem to be sure, but a lack of educated talent could also bring about a stall in the machine of progress, at least in this country.
What if – just at the ascendancy of the automobile in the 20’s – Americans never developed a taste for working on cars? Sure, they love to drive around, but can’t be bothered to learn how to change oil or repair a punctured tire. They love to buy cars and can’t wait for the newest version to come out, but have no idea how it works.
Only 10 percent of American high schools offer a course in computer programming.
American automakers can’t find skilled Americans to build cars. Ford moves to Dortmund while General Motors offshores the majority of its jobs to Osaka. Whether this car disconnect occurs before or after World War II decides whether we have the industrial might to win the war. We’re either business partners with Germany and Japan, or a wholly owned subsidiary.
This is where I get accused of being an alarmist, but I think it’s become readily apparent that tomorrow’s wars will be fought online. If the Syrian Electronic Army can cause a sell-off in our stock market with just one tweet, I think that point is self-evident. The question is whether we will have enough soldiers in that war.
I don’t pretend to have the answers to this problem. I just know there is one, and it will become of critical importance in the future. Do yourself a favor and find some free opportunities to learn basic programming. Show your children. If they seem interested, pursue it further. You might be making them millionaires – or generals.