No, Teaching Coding in High School Won’t Fix the Problem

As the reality of the changing economy starts to dawn on more policymakers and educators, some are attempting to adapt by pushing more students into higher education and focusing not just on more STEM education, but directly on computer science. Arkansas will be the first state to begin requiring high schools to offer classes in coding:

Arkansas will be implementing a new law that requires public high schools to offer classes in computer science starting in the 2015-16 school year. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who signed the bill, believes it will provide “a workforce that’s sure to attract businesses and jobs” to the state.

$5 million of the governor’s proposed budget will go towards this new program. For the districts incapable of of administering these classes due to lack of space or qualified teachers, the law has provisions for online courses to be offered through Virtual Arkansas.

I don’t want to be too critical of Arkansas here. The move is probably a good idea at this juncture, and policymakers have to be willing to experiment. But it’s worth remembering that coding and computer science jobs won’t even come close to replacing all the blue, pink and even white collar jobs being eliminated by mechanization, outsourcing and flattening–aided and abetted, of course, by the supply-side Reaganomics that has helped to strangle the middle class.

Robert Reich gives a couple of examples of the job disparity between the tech sector and the earlier model of the economy:

It’s now possible to sell a new product to hundreds of millions of people without needing many, if any, workers to produce or distribute it. At its prime in 1988, Kodak, the iconic American photography company, had 145,000 employees. In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy. The same year Kodak went under, Instagram, the world’s newest photo company, had 13 employees serving 30 million customers.

The ratio of producers to customers continues to plummet. When Facebook purchased “WhatsApp” (the messaging app) for $19 billion last year, WhatsApp had 55 employees serving 450 million customers.

There’s a fantasy in some circles that suggests that young workers can make up for the lack of stable, decent jobs by working independently coding apps. That’s as comical a vision as someone a decade ago suggesting that web design could become the new backbone of the economy. Coding won’t be any different: just another low-paying skill that too many people will have for the number of actual jobs available.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.