» Difference Engine: A blueprint for getting more women into information technology

Difference Engine: A blueprint for getting more women into information technology

Despite the incoming administration’s vow to bring thousands of well-paid jobs back to America, over half a million posts paying $100,000 a year or more are currently going begging. Labour experts believe the number of vacancies in computing and information technology could easily top a million by 2020. The number of young Americans graduating with qualifications in IT subjects is rising, but nowhere near fast enough to satisfy the burgeoning demand for their skills. Last year, American campuses produced fewer than 56,000 graduates with the sort of qualifications sought by information technology (IT) firms.

Exporting many of these jobs to Asia is likely to continue apace, no matter what Donald Trump may have in mind. The president-elect has threatened to impose a 35% import tariff on goods American companies produce in foreign countries. With its phones, tablets and other items assembled in Asia from components made in China, Taiwan and Japan, Apple is in a particularly sensitive position. The firm’s Asian suppliers employ 1.6m people making Apple products. Mr Trump wants the Californian company to manufacture at least some of its iPhones and iPads in America instead of China.

Easier said than done. It is not simply a matter of finding ways to compete with wage rates as low as $17 a day at assemblers like Foxconn and Pegatron, two of Apple’s biggest suppliers. There is also the matter of the lack of a supply chain in America for consumer-electronics components. Without that, Apple would have to import all the components from Asia to assemble products domestically. Insiders reckon that would raise the price of an iPhone by as much as $100—and hand a windfall opportunity to foreign rivals like Samsung, Huawei and Xiaomi.

And then there is the matter of manpower. China is graduating 350,000 engineers a year. True, many of them do not compare—in breadth of knowledge, analytical ability or even experience—with the far fewer numbers of engineering graduates from

 American or European universities. But having access to hordes of well-drilled foot soldiers is why Chinese firms excel at making cheap electronic components and assembling them into desirable products for Apple and others to sell elsewhere.

To this particular problem, though, there is an answer: womanpower. In autumn 2016, some 20.7m students entered higher education in America, of whom 11.7m were female. If present trends continue, many of these young women will get jobs after graduating in the life, physical and social sciences (where women account for 47% of the profession), community services (65%) or education (73%). A minority will go into computer and information sciences (34%), says the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) of Downers Grove, Illinois. Change that, and the industry's staff-supply problem would evaporate.

This would, of course, require a serious cultural change, for the discouragement of girls from IT starts way back in their early school years, when children begin to internalise ideas about what they would like to be when they grow up. Research commissioned by CompTIA last summer found that girls in middle school were only half as likely as boys (23% vs 47%) to have imagined themselves working with computers and information technology. Similarly, only half as many girls as boys said technology was their favourite subject (29% vs 55%). By the time they were in high school, the girls had become even less interested in IT.

This article first appeared in The Economist. Read more here.

Information Technology