It’s become a bipartisan article of faith that U.S. schools need to train more students in STEM. Yet the vast majority of good-paying jobs, now and in the future, don’t require knowing how to code. Improving basic digital skills is a more cost-effective way to boost workers and businesses.
There are roughly 14 million “middle-skilled” jobs in the U.S. that pay higher than the national average wage and don’t require a college degree. In 2002, fewer than half of all jobs in this category – in fields such as construction, retail and health care – required basic computer proficiency; now, nearly 90 percent do. Workers with these skills earn more and have better career prospects than their analog counterparts.
The good news is, this really isn’t rocket science. Most good-paying, middle-skilled jobs don’t require advanced computer expertise so much as familiarity with off-the-shelf tools: word-processing applications, spreadsheet programs and customer relationship management software. Groups with relatively low technical proficiency levels are at risk of losing opportunities for entry into middle-class careers.
Business leaders and public officials share a stake in fixing the problem. Increasing the number of workers with basic digital skills will boost companies’ productivity and reduce training costs. Existing online training courses can help students gain proficiency with software faster and more cheaply than it takes to learn to write code.
North Carolina, for example, has made Microsoft’s software training courses available to students in all of its public high schools since 2010. Ten other states have copied North Carolina’s model. Organizations such as Per Scholas, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that provides technology training to low-income adults and matches graduates with employers, can also help governments expand opportunity. (Bloomberg L.P. is a corporate partner of Per Scholas.)
There’s no question that the U.S., like other advanced economies, needs more computer scientists and engineers. Even more important is that all Americans, regardless of profession, have the tools to succeed in an increasingly digitized economy.