Many people see improving our roads and Metro as a shared goal that our region can rally around. I’d like to add another rallying point to this conversation: developing and expanding our region’s digital technology workforce.
Last week, the Greater Washington Partnership released a report that looked very closely at employment in digital tech industries — software development, data management and analysis, software technology engineering and IT management. Digital tech workers are among the highest paid in the country, and expanding digital tech employment drives the growth of leading regional economies.
Additionally, there are a broader range of jobs that aren’t digital tech industries but still require digital literacy. For example, many jobs in health care, law, accounting, advertising and media require comfort with digital technologies.
Taken together, digital tech jobs and digital literacy are highly important. Nearly two-thirds of the new jobs created in the United States since 2010 have required digital skills, and as digital technologies become increasingly integrated into the economy, the percentage can be expected to rise even higher.
Evaluated against these two realities — the need for digital tech workers and a broader workforce that is digitally competent — our region has a challenge.
There is good news. The report reminds us of our long history of leadership in digital tech employment. We should be proud of the role that our workforce has played in building the Internet, aerospace, wireless telecommunications, robotics, cybersecurity and bioinformatics industries, among others. Today 1 in every 16 jobs in our region is in digital tech.
But the GWP report has bad news for us, too. Although our region has one of the largest concentrations of digital tech workers in the country, we do not currently rank among the top 50 U.S. regions for job growth in this important job category. Over the past five years, the number of digital tech workers in our region has grown just 3 percent — only 8,000 net additional jobs — compared to a 12 percent national growth rate.
Moreover, it appears that our region educates digital tech workers who take their educations elsewhere when they look for work. Over the past five years, our region has produced a surplus of tech degree graduates. We had almost 14,000 digital tech degree graduates more than we had regional digital tech jobs filled. Yet at this moment, there are upward of 35,000 unfilled digital tech jobs in our region. It appears our graduates are either leaving for greener pastures, or are graduating with skills insufficient for the jobs that are offered.
Clearly something is not working in our region’s economy. The GWP report raises a number of reasons for this market disconnection. Our region’s employers as a group are not effectively signaling to educational programs the skill requirements for the digital tech jobs they have. National security requirements appear to inhibit the ability of government-reliant employers to employ applicants without bachelor or advanced degrees. Our traffic and housing issues result in quality of life concerns that encourage digital tech workers to migrate to other regions. A regional overreliance on service models for technology innovation encourage people who want to create digital tech product start-ups to go elsewhere.
I have no doubt that these are issues we can address as a region. We could identify mismatches between education and hiring by collecting and analyzing data and sharing insights. Direct involvement of our largest digital tech employers in creating educational syllabi, combined with internship and apprenticeship programs that they sponsor, could broaden opportunities for students to gain practical experience and have the right skills. For those that currently leave our region to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities elsewhere, we must give them reasons to stay by better supporting start-up business formation.
We have the resources to meet the challenge of digital tech workforce development. Let’s form a public/private partnership and get to work.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of TandemNSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.