Lack of Engineering Talent

I recently attended a dinner event for a prominent university here where internal university updates are discussed. Filled with lecturers, deans, VPs and other state & local VIPs, it’s a pretty standard gathering of higher education people. At this years dinner, the president of the university was discussing the brand new data center. Proud of the fact that it’s the schools first LEED Platinum certified building, she wanted to call out the person responsible for the initiative. This is how she announced them:

“My resident computer geek”

I talk to a lot of people about the state of the technology industry, especially with regards to job opportunities. Whenever I point to the wealth of technical job openings that remain unfilled, people always ask “why is there such a lack of tech people?”. The reason I give surprised many and gets dismissed. It’s this:

It’s still not cool to be involved with computers.

Despite all the recent fame & success of technology / internet entrepreneurs, people still think of techies as the taped glasses & pocket protector wearing geeks from the movies. It’s very hard to imagine why the “D&D playing virgins, living in their parents basement” historical stereotype persists. Yet, here we are.

“My resident computer geek”

Its difficult to find a faster growing sector of the economy with higher earning potential than computers. Yet despite the existence of demand, the year over year growth of the sector, the massive unemployment rates of certain generations and the high earning potential of a computer based job, the supply is actually going down.

To explain this some people point to the relative newness of technology professions as a leading indicator. The narrative goes that we’ll see younger generations see the demand, flock to it, then start to fill it. This might have been true in the 80’s, 90’s or early 00’s. But we’re squarely in the 3rd decade (at least) of computers underpinning most of our daily lives. If timing was an issue, we would have seen an influx of grads after the mid-80’s, late 90’s or mid 00’s. Yet, enrollment is down in almost every single STEM major around the country. The rise in use of non-US talent is at an all time high as companies go to Central & South America, Europe & Asia for talent.

Note: I know that higher ed is not the only source of talent and training, but it’s a big one.

Something deeper is going on that is steering people away from the sector.

“My resident computer geek”

This wasn’t some football throwing jock, stuffing kids into garbage cans. This was the president of a major university. If anyone should be sensitive throwing around pejorative names, it should be her. The dismissive remarks seem to ignore just how quickly tech savvy people are lapping non-tech savvy people in terms of knowledge, business acumen, social mobility and plain economic power. To dismiss that section of the population is dangerous at best and ignorant at worst.

Among the other members introduced that night were lit professors, authors, pharmacists and CEOs. How many of those people do you think were reduced to a unflattering stereotype? She could have easily used stereotypes such as bookworms, alcoholics, med school dropouts and crooks to describe the other members mentioned above. But she didn’t.

“My resident computer geek”

After her speech, at the end of the dinner, she had a new recruitment video cued up to show everyone. As we sat watching, the video froze and stopped playing. Everyone in the room sat there, with no idea what to do. The person running the laptop could do nothing but click play / pause a few times before the president declared “we’re having technical difficulties”.

If only there was a computer geek around to help.