High-tech companies in Austin and across Texas struggle to find workers with the computer science and technical skills they need. More often than not, they have to poach workers from other companies or recruit them from other states and countries.
Even at full capacity, the Central Texas higher education pipeline produces only half the computer science graduates needed to fill the open jobs in 19 of Austin’s key high-tech occupations, according to a 2015 report from the Austin Technology Council.
So this year, companies and educators are making a push at the Legislature in hopes of formalizing and garnering more financial backing for computer science programs in high schools. Proponents of five key bills say they’ve received broad, bipartisan support from lawmakers, but passage in a tight budget cycle is far from assured.
“We want future technologies and industries that will dominate the new economy to be created right here in Texas,” said Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “We want to be more in control of our own destiny. The key is that our talent has a well-rounded education and deeper skills in math and programming.”
The leading bill at the moment would establish a Pathways in Technology Early College High School program in Texas. More often called P-TECH, these programs got their start through a partnership between IBM and New York City schools and since have spread to five other states.
The Texas proposal was introduced by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and has the support of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Austin’s Sen. Kirk Watson, a Democrat, has signed on as a co-author of the bill, and Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, is a co-author of the companion bill in that chamber.
“Our education system should equip students with the tools and experience they will need to be successful in whatever career they choose to pursue,” Watson said in an email. “I believe P-TECH is one model that does that by connecting students with businesses to get hands-on experience and an eventual interview with these companies.”
P-TECH brings industry sponsors together with a six-year, early college high school program. The partner companies provide mentors and internships, and they pledge to give graduates — who earn a diploma and an associate degree — a first-in-line interview slot for relevant jobs.
In New York, they call the entire process a “slow interview,” said Sandy Dochen, Austin-based manager for IBM’s corporate citizenship and corporate affairs in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.
“They’re learning with each other,” Dochen said. “Businesses (learn) about what the kids’ needs are and what their talents can be; and students are learning not just academic knowledge with the courses, but practical applied knowledge.”
The first P-TECH programs in New York will complete their sixth year this spring, but IBM already has hired eight students who finished early. A few others interviewed at IBM but opted to pursue a four-year degree instead.
Taylor’s bill would earmark $5 million a year to help districts set up similar programs, but Austin has already launched a program that would receive the official P-TECH designation under this legislation, and so has Dallas.
In fact, the Dallas school district already has eight P-TECHs up and running, including its first initiative at Seagoville High School. It plans to add 10 more in August, according to Israel Cordero, the district’s chief of strategic initiatives. The school had almost 5,000 students show interest in 2,700 seats, Cordero told the Senate Education Committee last month.
“If you just look at AISD and what’s brewing in Dallas, you could have a ton of campuses here,” Dochen said. “We quickly could be bigger or right up there with New York, where we’ve had this in place almost six years now.”
A collection of four other House bills seeks to expand computer science classes for all schools and students, rather than carving out an early college high school program. Two of them would boost financial support for computer science courses by funding them at the higher rate allotted to districts for career and technical education, or CTE, courses.
Such funding would provide schools a “business model to invest in computer science classes,” said Carol Fletcher, deputy director at the University of Texas’ Center for STEM Education.
Currently, she said, districts need to take money away from other programs to support computer science courses. The additional CTE-level funding would provide a greater incentive to add such courses, and one of the bills would categorize computer science as a CTE program.
“This would put it in a group already connected to real-world jobs in a way that’s really necessary for computer science,” Fletcher said. “If we want to maintain learning and keep connected with industry, having it under CTE is the best way to do that.”
A third proposal, from state Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, who also authored one of the funding bills, would establish a grant program for training computer science teachers. It would set standards for professional development and help produce qualified computer science teachers at a statewide scale, Fletcher said.
While legislators have voiced support for these bills, they will carry a higher price tag than P-TECH. Fletcher said the proposal to wrap computer science into CTE would cost about $20 million for the biennium.
“We spend significantly more than that trying to bribe companies to come here from California and elsewhere,” she said. “If we spent that money to grow our own innovators and entrepreneurs rather than trying to convince companies to relocate here and bring a bunch of people from California, I think it’s a much better investment.”