There’s an interesting employment problem in Boise, but it’s probably not what you think.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there’s actually an abundance of jobs… as long as you’re looking in technology. Unfortunately, there’s also a shortage of skilled labor to fill those open tech positions, and it’s leading to problems for some of Boise’s fastest-growing companies, as well as the broader economy.

How did this happen?

We went to visit Dr. Amit Jain, associate department of computer science chair and professor at Boise State University, to find out more about STEM education and how it relates to Boise’s employment situation.

Dr. Jain is a slight man of Indian descent who can come off as reserved, but once we started talking with him about computer science’s role in education, he seemed to burst with enthusiasm and passion, gesticulating with his hands as he punctuated his points.

So, what did we learn? A few facts that completely changed our perspective on the Boise labor market.

Boise Computer Science Workers to the Rescue

As we sat down, Dr. Jain leaned forward at his desk with a view of downtown Boise through the window behind him. He steepled his fingers as he explained that he saw his job as bigger than merely teaching computer science to college students.

His role? To provide enough Boise computer science graduates to meet the increasing demand for tech labor. As it stands right now, a lot of technology jobs in Boise are going unfilled.

In pursuit of his lofty goals, Dr. Jain mentioned that BSU had just hired 10 new professors in order to accommodate the increase in computer science students. However, to get up to 200 computer science graduates per class, they still needed another eight professors.

They won’t be stopping at 200, either. Ultimately, the goal is to have 1,000 computer science graduates per year at BSU.

Why the Emphasis on Computer Science?

As Dr. Jain explains it, half of STEM jobs will be computer science jobs by 2020.

This shouldn’t be a huge shocker to most people. In fact, if you’ve been watching the employment landscape in the past few years, you may have already noticed that some of the fastest growing companies in the Boise area are local technology startups centered around software:

What you may not realize is the crucial role that these technology companies play in helping others make a good living in Idaho.

We were stunned when we heard Dr. Jain explain the value of technology in a local economy. As he put it, in many technology companies, the SaaS (software as a service) business model means that a company can create a successful core product with a small group of software engineers and programmers that are very well paid.

However, because the profit margins in a SaaS business are orders of magnitude higher than many other industries, this core group of computer scientists can pull up the salaries and benefits for every other class of worker hired in the company, including marketers, customer support representatives, bookkeepers, and more.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is, if those same companies don’t have enough tech workers to meet their growth trajectories, they’ll stall — and so will the growth of other jobs outside of technology. Recruiting from out of state is becoming easier, but it’s still not enough to meet demand.

We need more homegrown Boise computer science graduates.

The Plight of Non-tech Workers

You may have heard about the trend of young people between the ages of 25 to 34 leaving Boise, but here’s the thing: it’s only applicable to professionals without a computer science degree.

A whopping 85 percent of graduating tech students stay in the Boise area after they graduate, and that’s because they have plenty of opportunities. The trouble is, until we see enough tech workers to keep pace with tech company growth, the labor market will continue to pose a challenge for many other workers, even as it continues to be a favorable environment for professionals in computer science.

This is why we’ve seen a diaspora of talent in non-tech fields to other cities — the so-called “brain drain.” It’s happening even as companies based in Seattle or the San Francisco Bay area are looking to expand here in Boise.

To solve this complex problem, we may have to go all the way back to school. Specifically, K-12.

Starting With K-12

It goes without saying that a lot of people really like living in Boise. In fact, Dr. Jain himself beamed as he talked about how his own experience. “I love living in Boise. I love the hiking trails, the Foothills, the weather… It’s a wonderful place to live, and that’s why I want to help grow the community here,” he told us.

To make that happen, Dr. Jain and his computer science department are leading the way. As part of CS EdWeek 2015, he was invited to the White House Workshop on K-12 Computer Science Education, where he represented the state of Idaho and Boise State University.

The White House chose participants for this prestigious event based on their demonstrated national leadership in the field of computer science education. Dr. Jain’s invitation almost certainly came as a result of his principal investigation work on the IDoCode project.

Funded by a $1 million award from the National Science Foundation, IDoCode was dedicated to increasing the number of high school teachers that are prepared to teach quality computer science in Idaho.

After all, if students aren’t taught computer science in K-12, they’ll be less prepared for a college-level computer science program or a career in technology. It’s encouraging that there were 600 students in West Ada taking AP Computer Science Principles or Exploring Computer Science classes last year. This is all possible because of newly trained teachers.

“Computer science is like learning a language,” Dr. Jain explained with a smile. “Six months isn’t enough. A year isn’t enough.”

He went on to say that, to truly prepare students for these jobs, they need time to learn the “language” of computer science. Fortunately, thanks to additional training for teachers and more opportunities to learn, the next generation of computer scientists can finally get the essential skills they need.

The Boise Computer Science Solution

So, what are the takeaways from this enlightening discussion with Dr. Jain?

First, it’s encouraging to see a burgeoning partnership between university and industry here in Boise. In late 2016, the BSU computer science department moved to Eighth Street, just a few blocks from Trailhead, a prominent startup hub that’s empowering local entrepreneurs.

Second, we should note that computer science is a rapidly growing field, and it’s only getting more relevant over time. If you have kids, watch for the opportunities to have your kids participate in Boise computer science classes in school.

Perhaps most importantly, though, we need to internalize that a growing local economy is increasingly dependent on computer science workers and technology. It should be a priority for all of us to support Boise computer science education, because whether you work in a tech company or not, technology and computer science are clearly doing a lot of good for a lot of people.

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