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This past November, Amazon launched its Future Engineers program, a Kindergarten through high school computer science direct learning program. Beginning with 1,000 high schools in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, its goal is to teach more than 10 million kids per year how to code. Amazon cited a projection by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer science-based jobs available and only 400,000 graduates in computer science with the necessary skills to apply for these jobs. Future Engineers is targeting public schools and students from disadvantaged or underprivileged backgrounds, offering them a serious leg up in life through the promise of computer science: the chance to make a salary 40 percent higher than the average college grad and thrice that of the average high school graduate.
That’s some serious boat raising.
In this column, we’ve been discussing Inclusive Capitalism as it manifests in the form of affordable housing, infrastructure, medtech, fintech, and backing innovation and university research. On that last note, it strikes me that this educational campaign on Jeff Bezos’s part is nothing if not a brilliant example of inclusive capitalism in action. I say this because I recently laid out what I believe to be the ten fundamental principles of inclusive capitalism, and this initiative of Amazon’s solidly fits into eight out of the ten categories. The remaining two categories, it could be argued, may also be driving the thinking behind Future Engineers.
To give you a brief overview of these guidelines, they include that businesses need to engage in funding large-scale, long-term projects with the object of benefiting large numbers of people while still delivering a healthy return on investment. The benefit of Future Engineers to large numbers of young people and their families may be obvious. But what could represent a clearer long-term return on investment than creating and educating a bespoke workforce for generations to come, possessing exactly the skills companies of the future need? This is what Amazon is doing. And in the process of creating this new initiative, they are helping to meet an urgent market demand.
This demand consists of the skills necessary to meet the new needs of an evolving workplace, a crucial one being computer programming. Those skills won’t be acquired through osmosis or playing video games. Students will need to be incentivized to learn them, which is exactly what Amazon is addressing.
In Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin argues that no genius, from Mozart to Tiger Woods, came to it without having first put in ten thousand-plus hours of practice, from a young age. Let’s take a look at how Bill Gates came to be what he is. From Gates’s personal blog: He grew up in Seattle, Washington, with an amazing and supportive family who encouraged his interest in computers at an early age. He described getting hooked on programming at the age of 13, when his school was one of the first in the country to get a computer terminal. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Gates is quoted as saying, “It was my obsession. I skipped athletics. I went up there at night. We were programming on weekends. It would be a rare week that we wouldn’t get twenty or thirty hours in.” And later, in The Road Ahead, Gates wrote: “It was hard to tear myself away from a machine at which I could so unambiguously demonstrate success.”
From what I’ve observed of today’s teens and youth, it’s hard to come by such “unambiguous demonstrations of success.” Given the sharpened economic divide, ‘success’ in material terms becomes especially chimeric. Computer programming is an area where it doesn’t matter what college accepted you—or didn’t. You can learn these skills on your own terms and succeed.
Gladwell describes another computer genius, Bill Joy, a programming-obsessed kid who found his playing field in the 1971 state-of-the-art Computer Center at the University of Michigan. Telling Joy’s story, Gladwell concludes: “Here was a world that was the purest of meritocracies. Computer programming didn’t operate as an old-boy network, where you got ahead because of money or connections. It was a wide-open field in which all participants were judged solely on their talent and their accomplishments.”
This sense of unlimited opportunity should offer some incentive to young people who want to figure out what’s behind that little screen that’s always in their hand—and perhaps use that knowledge to start their own high-tech business. Or if that’s not enough to convince them, consider that 6 of the 10 richest people in America (all men, incidentally—shouldn’t that be some stimulus for girls to compete?) got there because of the technology industry.
There’s a clear need in the U.S. for a different level of educated workforce, one that can meet the technological demands of the world of innovation we are forging. The vast majority of this work is going to be in high-value, strategic jobs such as programming and data analysis, not making widgets.
You may ask, with some other countries clearly producing many more technologically equipped graduates, is it too late for the U.S. to enter the fray with training a high-tech workforce? Not at all. As one experienced software engineer who makes her living straightening out programming issues (created in equal part by Indian, Australian and American IT workers) blogs, “All code sucks after five years.” That leaves a lot of room for innovation, for new jobs, and for a young workforce eager to keep making better code.
So this Future Engineers story could lead to a Happily Ever After ending: Amazon—and the other companies trying to keep up their tech edge—gets its programmers. There are no dire shortages, either of jobs or of employable workers. Millions of people get higher paying jobs that will boost not only their self-esteem but their lifestyle. It could even resemble the good old days of manufacturing, when people could expect to get high paying jobs and enter the middle class. That sounds like a brand of inclusive capitalism I can heartily support.
April 15, 2019 at 09:28AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs