Setting Our Kids up for Tech Career Failure

Don Tennant

The general awareness of the importance of encouraging young people, especially girls, to pursue careers in computer science and other technology-related fields has risen substantially in recent years. The shame is that it's happening in a way that's setting them up for failure.


The failure lies in the fact that the focus on technology isn't being accompanied by an equally concerted effort to provide our kids with the complementary skills they'll need to compete for tech jobs in a global economy. The most glaring omission is in providing adequate opportunities to study foreign languages.


A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a career day event in Massachusetts, organized by the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce Education Foundation, in cooperation with the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. The event brought about 100 seventh- and eighth-graders together to learn about career opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, and for me it was a real eye-opener.


I had been asked to speak at the event in my capacity as a technology journalist, someone who could naturally address the importance of melding technology with the humanities in pursuing a career. I was impressed with the dynamism of the kids, who clearly wanted to be there-they were selected from a group of about 500 applicants on the strength of essays they'd written on why they wanted to take part in the event. My sense was that they were well-grounded in their academics, so when I mentioned my background in learning Chinese, I fully expected them to regale me with tales of their own foreign language studies. Silly me.


Only a sprinkling of the kids said they were studying a foreign language, and the options were limited to Spanish and French. It turns out that not only is a foreign language not required in middle schools in that particular district, but some schools don't even offer them. A couple of the teachers explained that when schools are forced to cut their budgets, foreign language departments tend to be especially high on the chopping block.


Even in high schools in this state, I subsequently learned, foreign language study is widely seen as an unaffordable luxury. The Massachusetts Department of Education's Foreign Languages Curriculum Framework, which apparently hasn't been updated since 1999, stipulates that all students are expected to "become proficient in at least one language in addition to English by the time they graduate from high school." But according to, "Some public high schools [in Massachusetts] have a foreign language requirement, but others do not."


Given that Massachusetts ranks seventh among the states in per-student spending, it's reasonable to conclude that back-burnering foreign language study isn't unique to Massachusetts. The message being sent to our kids is that having a second language in their career-building arsenals is inconsequential. Given that the competition for STEM jobs will only become more global in scope by the time these kids enter the work force, we're handicapping them by failing to prepare them with the international perspective and globally oriented skill set that they'll need to succeed. Young people must understand that having a second language will open doors that would never otherwise be opened to them, and they need to be encouraged and guided accordingly. As it is, we'll be guiding far too many of them through the door of their local unemployment office.

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Dec 4, 2009 3:07 AM walterbyrd walterbyrd  says: in response to Susan Hall

Today, working in tech means competing with 3rd world world wages. The jobs that are not offshored, are being staffed with guest workers from India.

There are way more than enough well qualified US tech workers to do the jobs, but US employers want offshore workers.

I have worked in IT for over 30 years, I know what I am posting about.

Dec 4, 2009 4:01 AM AMon AMon  says: in response to walterbyrd

I agree with Walter here.  For each of the countries where offshoring is high, the wages are very low and would be at or below poverty levels in the US.  Many places in South America, India, The Philipians and China are getting the jobs which were originally performed by US members in order to lower a corporations overall IT costs.  It began in the late 90's and is in full swing again with the economic downturn.  Knowning another countries language will probably help us deal more efficiently if we are in the business sector making the power decision with the different countries.

Dec 4, 2009 11:51 AM Susan Hall Susan Hall  says:

I agree totally, and even among kids who study foreign language, few come close to reaching proficiency.

Welcome to IT Business Edge, Don!

Dec 8, 2009 1:17 AM David Harris David Harris  says:

I believe that foreign language offerings in Missouri are similar to Mass: Spanish and French, and those programs may get cut if the district needs to redirect energy (talent, money, room-space) elsewhere.  I took German in high school, but that language isn't taught at any of the districts here in western MO.  One of my sons is taking Spanish in high school, another is taking French in middle school.

There is a need for Russian, Spanish, German, French, and Chinese in our high schools ... not to mention some of the Indian, African, and Middle Eastern languages.  It seems like school districts are cutting back and only offering the basics in many areas, and if students want to become proficient they need extra-curricular tutoring (audiobooks or DVDs, seminars, etc.).


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