Here's how to solve America's developer shortage

Employers say they can't find enough workers to staff IT jobs. Maybe they've been going about it all wrong

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In fact, common sense suggests that this should be a boom time for the U.S. technology industry. Learning to write software isn't like training to become a pharmacist, a dental assistant, or an HVAC technician, where students need access to expensive, specialized equipment and must pass government certification exams before they can practice their trades.

By comparison, the barriers to entry for a computing education are incredibly low. Brand-new PCs and laptops now retail for less than $500. Open source development tools cost nothing -- and they're the same tools the professionals use. Where once budding programmers studied from books that cost $40 apiece or more, today the equivalent material is available for free online.

Which brings us back to our high-schoolers. There's virtually nothing preventing motivated teens from gaining the skills the American software industry wants so desperately, long before they enter college. The key is to unlock their potential, both by encouraging their interest and by offering opportunities once they're ready to enter the workforce. That's where the Academy for Software Engineering comes in.

New education for a new workforce
The academy is not a trade school or vocational school. It's not a place to send kids who aren't on the college track (though, as with all high schools, some graduates may choose not to pursue four-year degrees). It's a regular high school, offering the full standard curricula in English, history, math, and science. Its program just happens to include advanced coursework in computer literacy and programming.

Equally important, there are no academic requirements for admission to the Academy for Software Engineering. It puts the lie to the idea that software development is something for the academic elite and that only the "best and brightest" need apply. Although there are a limited number of seats in the campus -- in the first year, it will probably accept between 400 and 500 applicants -- prospective students are judged based on their interest level alone. Instead of offering computing courses as a reward for good performance in other subjects, the academy takes students' interest in computing as a given and uses it as a springboard for the rest of their education.

By eliminating test-based admissions requirements, the academy also hopes to attract students of all gender, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, thus opening the IT workforce to a much broader cross-section of the American populace. That diversity is sorely needed.

What students at the academy stand to gain is not merely a foundational education in software engineering, but also the encouragement, resources, and basic academic credentials they need to continue on to a career in the IT field. What they will still need once they graduate is partnership from the IT industry.

The current divide between outsourced developers at the low end and American developers at the absolute top end of the pay scale is largely artificial. Until U.S. employers embrace a more realistic view of their operational needs -- including not just seasoned professionals with advanced degrees, but entry-level programmers and everything in between -- the cycle of outsourcing and erosion of the American IT workforce will continue, and we'll only have ourselves to blame.

The vision of the Academy for Software Engineering is to help create a new breed of IT professional, one that's better acclimated to the realities of today's jobs market. It's up to U.S. companies to have vision enough to hire them.

This article, "Here's how to solve America's developer shortage," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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