The Advocate

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber is urging education policymakers to make computer science courses available to more high school and college students to address a shortage of tech workers and help diversify the state’s economy.

In the past five years, economic development efforts in the Baton Rouge area have yielded 1,065 jobs and $56.8 million in payroll, the chamber said in a policy statement Thursday. The report noted that computing jobs are the top source of new wages in the country, with more than two-thirds of all tech jobs actually being tied to companies outside the traditional tech sector because of their use of computers and advanced technology.

In Louisiana, demand for computing jobs is five times higher than the average demand rate for occupations statewide, the chamber said.

However, reports by the Board of Regents indicate only 11 percent of Louisiana science, technology, engineering and math graduates majored in computer science in 2015, representing 2 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded by the state’s public institutions.

The report recommends focusing on college initiatives, while expanding computer science education in high schools.

The report acknowledges recent “positive” steps by the state to make computer science education available in high school and as a part of the Jump Start Career diploma program. The program prepares high school students for entry-level employment or post-secondary education at a technical or community college.

The program is receiving rave reviews from skilled craft and manufacturing employers, the chamber said, but is lacking in relevant computer science courses and availability to enough high schools. The report recommends courses targeted at computer coding and increasing accessibility, noting that a challenge is overcoming a shortage of instructors.

The report suggests participation in Exploring Computer Science, an introductory computer science high school course used by many school districts nationwide, or a program like it. The Computer Science Equity Alliance provides online resources and free teacher training programs, making it cheaper to implement teacher certification. Some school systems have collaborated with the National Science Foundation for funding initiatives.

The report also says public-private partnerships are effective, citing the Foundation for East Baton Rouge School System’s partnership with IBM, which has offices in downtown Baton Rouge. LSU also has partnered with the company to help produce enough workers.

The report said the most immediate and effective pathway to getting enough computer science workers would be through initiatives using the TOPS program, which helps pay university tuition for students who qualify.

Jump Start Career diplomas accounted for 12 percent of 2014-15 high school graduates, while students who pursue the TOPS diploma represented 79 percent, the report said.

“Focusing computer science education initiatives on these students would lead to the biggest workforce impact and has the highest potential for addressing the shortage,” the report said.

“To remain competitive and sustain its above-average growth, the Baton Rouge Area must focus on economic diversification, and the tech sector represents an opportunity to diversify our local economy with high-paying, persistent jobs that have a multiplier impact on area businesses.”