In the wake of the Soviet Union’s 1957 Sputnik launch, President Dwight D. Eisenhower confronted the reality that America’s educational standards were holding back the country’s opportunity to compete on a global technological scale. He responded and called for support of math and science, which resulted in the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and helped send the country to the moon by the end of the next decade. It also created the educational foundation for a new generation of technology, leadership and prosperity.
Today we face a similar challenge as the United States competes with nations across the globe in the indispensable field of computer science. To be up to the task, we must do a better job preparing our students for tomorrow’s jobs.
Kansas is primed to play an important role. From agriculture to general aviation to biomedical research, the state is home to fields that depend on computer science and computational thinking. These fields and others offer computing jobs in Kansas that pay on average $72,128 — roughly 70 percent higher than the average Kansas salary of $42,020. Unfortunately, there are more than 3,000 unfilled computing jobs in the state.
Nationally, it’s the same picture: There are more than 500,000 unfilled computing jobs — with a projected million computing openings by 2024.
We’re at an important intersection of technology and agriculture. Enormous investments are being made in “farm tech” startups — more than $2.06 billion in the first half of 2015 alone — that will shape the future of farming. As the agricultural sector depends more on data from computers, our need for workers with a basic understanding of computer science grows.
Meanwhile, nations as large as China and as small as Estonia are taking steps to ensure computer science education is available to all of their students. That puts our future workforce at a disadvantage in the increasingly globalized economy.
But this is about more than jobs. Like the moon shot of more than a half-century ago, it’s about national security as well, by preparing students for the increasingly computerized military and for jobs that can respond to and prevent debilitating cyberattacks.
Recently, the governors of 27 states along with school superintendents, education organizations and CEOs — of companies including John Deere, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Verizon, Walt Disney and Alphabet — wrote an open letter to Congress urging a commitment to give every student the opportunity to learn computer science. Some of the signers from the private sector committed $48 million in new funding to the cause of helping teachers and students prepare.
The best education policies are developed at the state and local levels. But this problem can’t be solved unless the federal government plays a limited but important role.
Sixty years ago, leaders from opposing parties recognized the importance of responding to the challenge of Sputnik. We should expect no less of our leaders today.
Jerry Moran is a U.S. senator from Kansas. Brad Smith is the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft.