BW and OEConnection Work to Narrow the Computing Skills Gap

April 1, 2013

According to a January 2013 Ohio Means Jobs Report, there are more than 18,800 open computer science jobs in Ohio—12 percent of all job openings statewide. But as The New York Times noted earlier this year, there is “an alarming mismatch between the relatively small number of Americans being trained in computer science and the employment opportunities that await them.”

It's no wonder technology companies throughout Northeast Ohio and the nation find it increasingly difficult to find qualified candidates to fill these high tech positions. Just 2% of our nation’s 1.65 million college graduates received a degree in computer and information sciences in 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"The problem extends — and arguably begins — in our high schools, which have actually decreased computer science curriculum in recent years due to budget cuts and funding issues," said Jodi L. Tims, Ph.D., chair of Baldwin Wallace University’s Mathematics and Computer Science Department. "With only 10% of high schools offering a computer programming class and only 5% of schools offering coursework at the AP level, very few students are actually gaining access to this field of study."

"The gap between skilled technology graduates and actual business need is a concern for technology companies that are looking to grow and expand. At OEConnection, we rely on a comprehensive internship program and our relationships with colleges and universities throughout Ohio to build a pipeline of talent," said OEConnection Director of Marketing and Human Resources Amy French. 

Competition Aims to Motivate High School Students

On April 16, BW's Computer Science Department, in partnership with OEConnection, a Cleveland area software company, hosted a high school programming contest aimed at identifying and motivating high school computing students. By providing a fun and challenging environment where local students put their skills into action, the annual competition focuses on students who are still considering undergraduate fields of study, before many have dismissed computer science careers as beyond their abilities or outside of their interests.

Now in its tenth year, more than 675 students have participated in the competition, including BW computer science major Ben Adelson '14, who had no clue what computer science was all about until he took Intro to Programming at Solon High School.

"My interest was piqued further when I took the AP Computer Science class during my senior year of high school," Adelson said. He then put that growing interest and knowledge to the test at BW's High School Programming contest.

"It was like nothing I had experienced before," he said. "It was really cool to be able to apply your problem solving skills across many areas during the contest. My team actually ended up winning the contest that year."

Solon High School Computer Science Success Story

As the sole computer science teacher at Solon High School, Daniel McKeen said he brings as many students as he can to the competition each year to expose them to something they can’t get in the classroom: an opportunity to test their problem solving skills and work as teams, much like programmers do in the business world. In 2012, McKeen brought eight teams to Baldwin Wallace even though only three were eligible to compete. The contest usually attracts just one or two teams from each participating school.

"I could have taken more," McKeen said. "They all want to go. Every year, on the ride home from the competition, the kids are so excited and pumped up about the experience."

Solon High School is the most winning team in the competition's history, with three first-place finishes and top five rankings for seven of the last eight years. According to McKeen, his students go into the contest with an unfair advantage because he teaches Solon's AP class at the equivalent of a full year of college-level computer science.

"For whatever reason, maybe lack of enrollment or not enough teachers, the higher-level AP exam was discontinued about three years ago by the College Board," McKeen said. "I decided it was unfair to my current students, so I still teach the full curriculum for the old test even though they only test for the first half," he explained.

McKeen’s dedication to his students is paying off in other ways. In January, Solon High junior Alan Jaffee earned a perfect score on the AP Computer Science A exam, making him one of only 18 students in the world to ace the exam. McKeen has enough computing talent at Solon to bring three teams to the 2013 BW programming contest, a competition aimed at attracting students to the lucrative and rewarding computer science career path.

Nationwide Focus on K-12 Technology Education

The new sense of urgency around the IT talent shortage is not unique to Ohio. Earlier this year, President Obama said "it makes sense" to add a curriculum requirement for American high school students to learn a programming language, while the nation's leading technology geeks launched, a project to promote K-12 computer coding education in the U.S.

By 2018, Ohio is predicted to have 274,000 STEM-related jobs that companies will need to fill. So the question remains: how can the gap between computer science education and business need be filled? For now, Baldwin Wallace University, OEConnection and area high schools are quietly offering students a chance to test their computing skills and perhaps see themselves in a career field that offers phenomenal job growth, not to mention the opportunity to create something from nothing.