OCT 23, 2009 8:29am ET

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Why Young Workers Don’t Care About Computer Science

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Just this week, the House of Representatives unanimously approved H. Res. 558, a resolution introduced by Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), supporting computer science and the designation of a National Computer Science Education Week.

“I am very pleased that today we are considering a resolution that turns our attention to the coming shortage of computer scientists,” Ehlers said. “It is very critical that all of our nation’s students receive a foundation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This prepares students to become the innovators of tomorrow. Without innovation, our nation and its economy will be on a declining path.”

Actually, our nation and economy are already on a declining path, but Ehlers makes an excellent point about the crying need for technology innovators. He goes on to note that, according to a study by the Computer Science Teachers Association, even in schools that employ computer science teachers, only a little more than half of the schools offer introductory courses in computer science, and the number of course offerings are declining.

“If we do not reverse that trend,” he declares, “we will become a second-class nation.”

Ehlers statements are borne out by anecdotal reports of fewer and fewer computer science graduates at our colleges universities in recent years, despite a shortage of computer professionals that is so acute that companies like Microsoft are trying to promote increased importation of foreign workers to fill U.S. vacancies in certain skilled areas.

The situation is even worse for IT departments in the insurance industry, which must not only fight the anti-computer-science malaise that seems to have infected our young people, but also the dull-as-dishwater image of the insurance industry itself. Yet while unemployment among some computer professionals has seen a slight uptick in this economy, there seems little doubt that many more skilled technology workers will be needed in the years to come.

So why aren’t high school and college students opting for computer science? In the past, I have speculated that since this generation has grown up with computer technology—much the way my generation grew up with television—computers are just a ho-hum fact of life for them. When I got to college, I can’t remember a single friend saying they wanted to delve into television technology, even though it was clearly dominant at that time. Perhaps the same “so what?” mentality is at work here.

But I think there is another powerful factor that steers young people away from what they see as humdrum careers, and that factor began with us, the parents of those who are about to enter the workforce. Specifically, I’m talking about the idea that a growing child “can be anything he or she wants to be.” Now I never heard that from my parents growing up and most of my friends didn’t either, but I know plenty of parents nowadays who tell that awful lie to their kids. And this fantasy is reinforced millions of times daily by the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon.

What do I mean? When I was a child, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I had the dream and I had the desire. Unfortunately, I also had a sub-.100 on base percentage, hands of stone in the field, and a pop-gun throwing arm that made me the fifth outfielder on a Little League team that wasn’t all that good in the first place. Imagine what would have happened if my parents had insisted that I could be the next Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. At the very best, I would be walking around disillusioned about my dream career and bitterly wondering why mom and dad lied to me all those years.

Yet we hear this message all the time from well-meaning parents and would-be social architects. As a result, we have lots of children running around believing in their hearts that they will be the next Cy Young winner, the next major CEO or the next American Idol, despite a lack of corroborating evidence. Few of them will aspire to be computer scientists for insurance companies. Parents tell them, and they truly believe, that given enough hard work and sacrifice, the apex of their desires is within reach. The sad fact, however, is that there is only room for one at the top, and there are many parents telling their children the same fairy tale.

The truth is that many of us—most of us—cannot be “anything we want to be” in this cold cruel world. There’s really nothing wrong with that. I may not be batting cleanup for the Mets (although given their current state, they may call on me), but I have managed to find fulfilling career activities.

Parents, drop the Disney fantasies and encourage your kids in the areas in which they show exceptional talent. If science and math are among those areas, let them know they can succeed and have fulfilling careers in related areas. Not all of us can be what we originally dreamed for ourselves, but dreams and reality often do meet in the middle, yielding happy and productive lives.

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