Within the next five years, 740,000 job openings will be available in Washington state, and one-third of them will be jobs in the STEM field.

Share story

When Ed Lazowska first started his job as a professor of computer science at the University of Washington 40 years ago, things were a little different.

For one thing, Seattle wasn’t the hotbed for tech companies it is now, with tens of thousands of computer programmers and software engineers at local companies like Microsoft and Amazon and at secondary campuses for Silicon Valley giants Google and Facebook, in addition to the hundreds of smaller tech companies and startups that have made the Puget Sound region their home.

When Lazowska first took the job teaching computer science at the University of Washington, in 1977, Microsoft had yet to even move to the area from its original headquarters in Albuquerque. Personal computer use was so rare that the government wouldn’t even start collecting census data on household computers for seven more years (and then, in 1984, only 8 percent of households would report owning a personal computer).

Times have changed.

Within the next five years, 740,000 job openings will be available in Washington state, and one-third of them will be jobs in the STEM field — that’s nearly 250,000 tech-sector jobs. And our region is already struggling to fill the open jobs it has.

“This is an incredibly vibrant economy thanks in large part to the IT companies in our region,” says Lazowska. “However, in terms of education, Washington is by far the largest importer of people with a bachelor’s degree.”

The main problem is twofold, says Lazowska. “First, we don’t have enough spaces in higher education in computer science. Second, that parts of the population are severely underrepresented in the seats that are being filled.”

Private companies are concerned when they look at the local talent pipeline, and they see that the answer to expanding the pool of students locally who will be prepared to enter this tech-centric economy, lies in part with our public universities.

For its part, Microsoft has pushed on policy initiatives aimed at this issue. It has also invested in programs that expose kids to computer science, including TEALS, Code.org, Washington STEM, and a partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to create a computer science curriculum for younger kids. “Starting all the way from early learning, it’s pretty well known that high-poverty kids and kids of color in the state are at a disadvantage from the very beginning, if you just look at kindergarten readiness for example,” says Jane Broom, a senior director who oversees education issues for Microsoft Philanthropies.

But soon they realized that all the way at the top of the educational food chain there was another problem. “Even if the University of Washington could triple their number of computer science graduates, and Western Washington University could triple theirs and Washington State University could triple theirs, that still wouldn’t be enough seats to meet workforce demand,” says Broom.

The public and private sectors are putting their heads together to come up with some ideas to face the local computer science higher education crunch.

Dan Radion, 23, a software engineer at Google in Seattle who grew up in Arlington, Washington, might have fallen victim to the lack of opportunity in computer science higher education if it weren’t for one such public-private partnership: the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. In 2011, the Washington State Legislature joined forces with local businesses, including Microsoft, to create the program, which provides scholarship funding and support services to low- and middle-income Washington state residents who are earning degrees in STEM and health care fields.

More than 8,600 students have received support from this scholarship to date. Of the scholarship recipients selected in 2016, 72% are first generation college students, 60 percent are women and 73 percent are students of color.  “My family is a refugee family from Ukraine. We came to the U.S. when I was 4 years old,” says Radion. “I have seven siblings; my parents didn’t go to college and it just wasn’t a norm in the culture where we grew up.”

Even though he didn’t envision going to college himself, Radion’s high school had a robotics club and he checked it out, took a coding course and eventually realized he really enjoyed engineering. He took classes during high school at Everett Community College through Running Start, and had an internship with a small company in computer engineering when he realized he wanted to keep studying. “I was the first one in my family to go to college and it took a lot to make that jump. When I applied to the University of Washington Computer Science & Engineering department and was lucky enough to get in and to receive a Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, that was a big source of my money for college,” he says. “I wouldn’t have considered going if I financially couldn’t do it. Money was always a pain in my family and so there was a lot of risk aversion toward taking on any debt.”

Today, Radion is well aware how much that education has changed his life’s circumstances. “I’ve gone from being part of an immigrant family that lived on food stamps to working at Google now — today my younger brother just started college, and my little nephews all say that they want to be engineers like Uncle Dan. That’s absolutely wonderful to see that change happening.”

But more needs to be done. For his part, Lazowska is laser-focused on increasing the diversity of the students who come through the University of Washington program. To increase the size of the talent pool, increase social equity and, most importantly, he says, so the computer science field will come up with better solutions. “We’re engaged in a fundamentally creative endeavor,” he says. “We’re designing systems for the world to use, and if parts of the population are not represented in that process you will come up with a worse solution than if you have a more diverse group.”

At the University of Washington they’re working hard to make their introductory courses more supportive, to tap into the students who might not necessarily see themselves as computer science majors at first. Something they’re doing must be working. The number of students who want to major in computer science is rapidly growing, and there’s growing demand for students want to take higher level computer science courses even if they’re in different majors. “We have a long way to go, but the proportion of bachelor’s degrees granted to women in computer science at University of Washington was twice the national average last year,” says Lazowska.

Still, Broom and others who are looking at this problem from a bird’s-eye view are hoping to find even more solutions. Because the issues are big, and progress is slow, says Broom. “When I first looked at how many students in the state of Washington were taking the AP computer science test, about six years ago, a number really jumped out at me,” says Broom. “The number was five. There were five African-American students in the whole state who took that test. Last year, we had 38 African-American kids take the AP Computer Science test. Is that good? I don’t know, but it’s growth and these are real kids and so that’s cool to see.”

Broom says many options are on the table, including questioning whether everyone who goes into tech really needs a full four-year bachelor’s degree, and whether our high schools should adopt more apprenticeship-style programs so students can start to earn and learn at the same time.

“Ultimately, our workforce is our No. 1 issue we as a state face,” says Broom. “So we want to look and see if there are alternative routes to getting local students headed toward some of these jobs sectors that are in such high demand for talent more efficiently. Because this state is producing great jobs with great salaries and there’s no reason the kids of Washington state shouldn’t be first in line to get those jobs.”

Learn more about Washington Opportunity Scholarship and the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.