DESPITE the incoming administration’s vow to bring thousands of well-paid jobs back to America, over half a million posts paying $100,000 a year or more are currently going begging. Labour experts believe the number of vacancies in computing and information technology could easily top a million by 2020. The number of young Americans graduating with qualifications in IT subjects is rising, but nowhere near fast enough to satisfy the burgeoning demand for their skills. Last year, American campuses produced fewer than 56,000 graduates with the sort of qualifications sought by information technology (IT) firms.
Exporting many of these jobs to Asia is likely to continue apace, no matter what Donald Trump may have in mind. The president-elect has threatened to impose a 35% import tariff on goods American companies produce in foreign countries. With its phones, tablets and other items assembled in Asia from components made in China, Taiwan and Japan, Apple is in a particularly sensitive position. The firm’s Asian suppliers employ 1.6m people making Apple products. Mr Trump wants the Californian company to manufacture at least some of its iPhones and iPads in America instead of China.
Easier said than done. It is not simply a matter of finding ways to compete with wage rates as low as $17 a day at assemblers like Foxconn and Pegatron, two of Apple’s biggest suppliers. There is also the matter of the lack of a supply chain in America for consumer-electronics components. Without that, Apple would have to import all the components from Asia to assemble products domestically. Insiders reckon that would raise the price of an iPhone by as much as $100—and hand a windfall opportunity to foreign rivals like Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi.
And then there is the matter of manpower. China is graduating 350,000 engineers a year. True, many of them do not compare—in breadth of knowledge, analytical ability or even experience—with the far fewer numbers of engineering graduates from American or European universities. But having access to hordes of well-drilled foot soldiers is why Chinese firms excel at making cheap electronic components and assembling them into desirable products for Apple and others to sell elsewhere.
To this particular problem, though, there is an answer: womanpower. In autumn 2016, some 20.7m students entered higher education in America, of whom 11.7m were female. If present trends continue, many of these young women will get jobs after graduating in the life, physical and social sciences (where women account for 47% of the profession), community services (65%) or education (73%). A minority will go into computer and information sciences (34%), says the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) of Downers Grove, Illinois. Change that, and the industry’s staff-supply problem would evaporate.
This would, of course, require a serious cultural change, for the discouragement of girls from IT starts way back in their early school years, when children begin to internalise ideas about what they would like to be when they grow up. Research commissioned by CompTIA last summer found that girls in middle school were only half as likely as boys (23% vs 47%) to have imagined themselves working with computers and information technology. Similarly, only half as many girls as boys said technology was their favourite subject (29% vs 55%). By the time they were in high school, the girls had become even less interested in IT.
What puts them off? At that age, it is hardly differences between the sexes in annual salary (typically $6,000) or glass ceilings that can obstruct promotion. Nor is it likely to be the tech industry’s notorious sexist behaviour. Though real, such biases are encountered only at a later stage. For young girls, however, negative stereotypes abound—in the home, on television, at school. Possibly the most damaging is the long-held (and erroneous) view that boys are somehow better at mathematics. They do outscore girls at tasks involving spatial skills, but that does not necessarily make them any better at developing apps or building data networks.
But in popular culture, the nerds are always boys, while girls are seen as the caring ones. Parents frequently reinforce these stereotypes. For instance, boys are twice as likely as girls (11% vs 5%) to be given a mobile phone when young, and more likely to pull it apart to explore its innards, says CompTIA. Schools are not much better at piquing girls’ interest in IT. Despite the proliferation of laptops in classrooms, staff members qualified to teach computer science are in seriously short supply. As a result, computer courses fail to explain what a career in IT entails, and the wide range of jobs on offer. And, as the CompTIA study found, girls depend far more than boys on their teachers for advice about future careers.
It is no surprise, then, that rather than imagining a life in IT, girls tend to be drawn more to topics such as art and music, or to professions like teaching and nursing. This is not because of an aversion to technology, nor the lack of necessary skills. It is simply that too many girls harbour a misconception that working in IT means being sat alone in front of a screen for 40 hours a week. Nobody has bothered to tell them otherwise.
The good news is that correcting such cultural, institutional and unconscious biases is not all that difficult. A blueprint for doing so was drawn up by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, a small science and engineering powerhouse in Claremont, California. Dr Klawe raised the percentage of women graduating in computer science from less than 15% in 2006 to 55% in 2016, primarily by removing intimidation in the classroom, and abolishing all notions about some people being good at computer science and others not.
For instance, the college divides its introductory course by prior experience, so students coming fresh to computer science are not terrified by those who have been coding since they were eight years old. Meanwhile, instead of plunging students into the intricacies of the Java programming language, they are first taught to find creative solutions to problems using computational approaches. To limit the number of dropouts, the course material is divided into modules, so anyone who gets behind in one module struggles for only a week or two rather than a whole semester.
Overall, Dr Klawe has seven tips for getting more women into IT, including early internships and hiring lots of female faculty members as mentors and role models. The incoming White House could do much to bridge the widening gap in America’s IT workforce by embracing the Harvey Mudd model. In particular, as a way of getting more computer-science teachers into high schools across the country, it would be a far more “innovative approach to training” than anything tried so far.