Is CS for All Really a Sinister Plot Against Tech Workers?

September 26, 2017

If we are to believe Ben Tarnoff of The Guardian, he has uncovered a nefarious plot. The broad national effort to bring computer science classes to every American high school is, per Tarnoff, a cynical ploy to depress wages in the tech sector. Can Tarnoff be right? Can equity really be so unjust?

Let’s consider the alternative. If we keep rationing skills and opportunity by sticking with the status quo, the benefits of our innovation economy will continue to bypass millions of Americans. That would be sinister, indeed.

Tarnoff’s case rests on the faulty conviction that coding jobs are scarce. “Teaching millions of kids to code won’t make them all middle-class,” he claims. “Rather, it will proletarianize the profession by flooding the market and forcing wages down – and that’s precisely the point.”

To support his argument, Tarnoff turns to a four-year-old study claiming that the United States produces too many computer scientists as it is. That study was roundly discredited soon after it was released, and computing jobs have only gained steam since then.

Tech wages are rising, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that jobs in computing will grow by 12.5 percent between 2014 and 2024 (almost twice as fast as all jobs), and unemployment in computer occupations stands at a vanishingly small 2.4 percent

If anything, these figures probably minimize the demand for computer science skills. Our research has found that the BLS typically counts only half of the Americans who use complex computing skills in their work. Why? Traditional job titles have not kept up with the tech revolution.

Some 3.8 million Americans in careers we don’t normally associate with technology write computer code, develop software, or maintain computer networks on the job. For example, many ad agency jobs now require computer science degrees.

Computing across the economy

These jobs are out of reach for millions of poor and minority youth whose schools do not even offer computer science courses. Computer Science for All aims to upend that status quo. 

To Tarnoff’s credit, he implicitly backs away from his own argument near the end of his article. After impugning initiatives like code.org for their base motives, he writes:

Everyone should have the opportunity to learn how to code. Coding can be a rewarding, even pleasurable, experience, and it’s useful for performing all sorts of tasks. More broadly, an understanding of how code works is critical for basic digital literacy – something that is swiftly becoming a requirement for informed citizenship in an increasingly technologized world.

Amen! So why, then, should we deplore the effort to bring computer science into all high schools?

It’s preposterous to think that educators, tech companies, state leaders, President Obama, and now the Trump Administration have all signed on to a conspiracy to cheat America’s tech workforce. But let’s pretend for a moment that they have.

If so, Jorge Luis Borges’s famous dictum on art should give us comfort: “Nothing is more secondary than the author’s intentions.” If the road to a better future is paved with bad intentions, then so be it.

Tags: computer science, jobs & workforce