Should young Americans bother studying technology?

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We have a fundamental disconnect facing this country's technology labor force. On the one hand, we need young people to pursue careers in technology so we can regain our competitive edge as a nation. On the other hand, because of the pace of technological change, we will almost certainly leave these same people out of work and out of luck once the first gray hairs sprout upon their heads.

The disconnect stood out in stark relief for me after I read a New York Times piece on Sunday about the difficulty that tech professionals with 10 years' experience are having finding work. The article focuses on Silicon Valley, where there evidently are a lot of job openings--but not for anyone with much experience.

People older than 35 (yes, 35) "regularly face discrimination by technology companies," the article reports. In December, the unemployment rate in the South Bay region was higher than the national average, even though companies in the area are growing and hiring.

The phenomenon is aptly--if unwittingly--summed up by Lori Goler, the head of HR at Facebook, which seeks to recruit the "college student who built a company on the side, or an iPhone app over the weekend...We ask: Are they going to get to do what they love to do for fun at work?"

Here's the question the college student should ask: "Am I still going to think of this as fun after doing it 50-60 hours a week for 10 years? If I realize that it is, in fact, work, I will want to be compensated for it fairly, but instead I will be let go since I was hired because I was relatively cheap."

And that's where the disconnect lies. Everywhere we turn we hear about 1) the need for young people to go into technology and science to help the country and themselves; and 2) sincere efforts to encourage more students to enter these fields. Three quick examples:

  • In the State of the Union address Jan. 24, President Obama said: "Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job." The president wants companies to partner with community colleges to "teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing."
  • The Academy for Software Engineering in New York City, preparing to open in the fall, aims to address the domestic hiring problem by narrowing the gap between high-priced American developers and their low-priced counterparts overseas. By foregoing academic admissions requirements, the academy hopes to teach a more diverse range of the population to code.
  • The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce recently put out a report on college degrees and earning opportunity (.pdf), concluding that high school students bound for college should pick their majors very carefully because unemployment and earnings are closely tied to majors. Recent college graduates with degrees in computers, mathematics and engineering earned considerably more than new graduates with any other degrees, including business and health, prompting a lot of career counselors to start nudging more teens onto this path.

A technology education no doubt lands fresh, new graduates jobs faster than an English degree does, all the while giving U.S. employers a greater domestic pool to fish from. But if that education lands those same people out on the street not long after they receive an invite to their 10-year class reunions, what good does it really do them? If a young person's life plans include anything like a mortgage and tuition for the offspring, half a career probably isn't going to cut it. - Caron