Closing tech workforce gap calls for interdisciplinary model

The Mercury News OPINION

By Tsu-Jae King Liu and Belle Wei, Special to The Mercury News
POSTED: 07/19/2016 12:03:10 PM PDT


ecent reports indicate that Silicon Valley technology companies continue to suffer a persistent and significant gender gap. At Facebook, women occupy only 17 percent of technical jobs. At Google, it’s 19 percent. At both firms, and at others, efforts are underway to improve these numbers by training, recruiting, and retaining more women. Many of those measures are built around K-12 educational initiatives, but more can be done to help bridge the gap among today’s college students.

The problem isn’t that women aren’t seeking higher educational opportunities. They are, at an increasing rate. The problem is that while more and more women are entering college, fewer and fewer of them are pursuing pathways toward technology jobs. While women earn 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, they earn only 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computing. That’s a nearly 50 percent decline over the past three decades.

These numbers reflect a broader crisis afflicting the U.S. workforce. Our universities are not graduating nearly enough students to keep pace with the growing demand for computing jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates that 1 million jobs will go unfilled by 2020. This gap threatens America’s competitiveness.

To tackle the challenge, we must seek systematic change to provide technology education to more women. And if women are not taking courses in computing and information technology, we must bring these courses to them. In other words, we need to create new interdisciplinary computing programs that connect technology curricula to those fields that already attract a large proportion of women.

We know where to begin. According to the National Science Foundation, women are flocking to the fields of mathematics, biological sciences and psychology, contributing 43 percent, 60 percent and 77 percent to those student populations respectively. This presents opportunities to connect women with computer technology. We should equip them for emerging applications stemming from those domains, expanding frontiers of innovation like bioinformatics, big data analytics and behavioral and social computing.

Toward that end, we need academic departments in universities to develop undergraduate programs that incorporate the computing skills vital to their particular disciplines, from freshman through senior years, from campus to career.

Our educators are up to the task. What they need is incentive and support, along with resources to help them transcend outdated disciplinary divides.

Silicon Valley companies must redouble their efforts to collaborate with university educators. We need leaders across a broad spectrum of industry to identify the knowledge and skill sets that new employees will need to succeed.

We are starting in the right place. Silicon Valley’s success over the last half century has been driven by its enterprising and educated workforce at the forefront of innovation. We have the schools, the firms and the talent. What we need is a new interdisciplinary innovation model to spur Silicon Valley onward into its next half century of technology leadership. And we cannot wait.

Our nation and our world face big problems. Outmoded transportation. Crumbling infrastructure. Skyrocketing medical costs. Food and water scarcity. Climate change. These problems can’t be solved by retrograde siloed study. They demand strategic thinking, collaborative skills and technological innovation.

That is why we’re calling for an interdisciplinary education solution supported by industry partners to inspire more young people, particularly women, to pursue computing careers. Tomorrow’s problems will require every talent we can muster. We cannot afford to leave women behind.

Tsu-Jae King Liu is Vice Provost, Academic and Space Planning and TSMC Distinguished Professor in Microelectronics in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. Belle Wei is Carolyn Guidry Chair in Engineering Education and Innovative Learning at San José State University and is former Dean of SJSU’s College of Engineering and Provost at CSU, Chico.

Copyright 2016 San Jose Mercury News. Reprinted with permission.

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