RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The U.S. has made it through gas shortages and the credit crunch. Now, tech industry insiders are warning that the country is headed for a critical shortage of computer programmers. NPR's Steve Henn reports that a new nonprofit is launching this week, backed by some big tech names; hoping to close the gap by getting kids excited about coding.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Since 2004, the number of U.S. students graduating from college with computer science degrees has fallen by roughly 30 percent. Hadi Partovi is a tech entrepreneur who also invested in Facebook. He says if graduation rates plateau at this level, over the next decade, something like...
HADI PARTOVI: One million more jobs are going to be created than there are students graduating from our colleges, studying to fill those jobs.
HENN: And you don't have to take Partovi's word for it. His numbers are based on Commerce Department projections.
PARTOVI: And these are among the highest-paying jobs in the country. If you add up all those jobs, it adds up to about $500 billion worth of salaries and economic value for our country.
HENN: So Partovi helped found Code.org. The group's first goal is to get more kids - all kinds of kids - excited about coding as a possible career.
(SOUNDBITE OF CODE.ORG PROMOTIONAL MOVIE)
WILL.I.AM: Great coders are today's rock stars.
HENN: It's enlisted celebrities like Will.i.am. The group launched a website to help kids find programming classes in their own neighborhoods, and they've produced a movie to help explain what coders actually do. Turns out most programmers don't work for tech companies. If you want to write songs, cure cancer or build race cars, coding helps.
Lesley Chilkcott made the film.
LESLEY CHILKCOTT: I tried to interview a lot of people that would break the myth of the stereotype that still exists - of the nerd programmer in a dark corner, with pizza boxes piled up and crushed soda cans, you know, coding for 36 hours without a break; and all of these things that just aren't really true anymore.
HENN: Still, Code.org has some high-profile geeks as backers. In the film, guys like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates talk about how they started programming.
BILL GATES: The best early thing was, actually, using software to decide when the classes in my school would meet. And that put me in a position to decide which girls were in my class.
HENN: But lots of the folks in this film don't fit into this nerdy boy-genius stereotype.
BRONWEN GRIMES: You don't have to be a genius to code. Do you have to be a genius to read?
HENN: Bronwen Grimes designs video games at Valve. And then there's Chris Bosh, from the Miami Heat. He majored in computer science.
CHRIS BOSH: When I was in school, I was in this after-school group called the Wiz Kids. And when people found out, they laughed at me and, you know, all these things. And I'm like, man, I don't care. I think it's cool and, you know, I'm learning a lot - and some of my friends have jobs.
HENN: But code.org found most school districts don't even teach computer science. Hadi Partovi hopes his group will change that. And he's convinced that in the 21st century, learning to code will become as useful - and frankly, as necessary - as learning to read.
Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.
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