Machine Design

Coding nightmares

A recent column in the Wall Street Journal about the employment of newly minted college grads is getting a lot of attention. In it, the head of a publishing-services company maintains he probably won’t be hiring anyone fresh out of school because, “the right skills are very hard to find. I’m sorry to say it, dear graduates, but you probably don’t have them.” The skills he is talking about are those associated with programming computers.

As you might expect, the author, Kirk McDonald, is taking a lot of heat for this comment and for the rest of his missive, in which he claims kids would “be well advised to learn how to speak computer code.” He points out that the U. S. will mint about 40,000 computer-science bachelor’s degree over the next decade while creating 120,000 jobs for individuals with those qualifications.

McDonald’s piece has garnered almost 500 online comments so far, with a lot of them taking the tone of this one: “Rather than off-loading your training costs to potential employees who will have to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to get the training your company seems unwilling to offer, may I suggest you engage the labor market with something more than a promise of foosball and free bottled water. How about higher initial salaries and job security?”

The irony is that there is another vocation that seems to have no problem convincing legions of kids to spend a bundle on education which qualifies them only for low-paying jobs with cruddy job security. In fact, TV viewers can see evidence of the trend every time they tune into the Food Channel on cable.

Chefs earned annual median wages of $40,630 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, yet there seems to be no shortage of them. Moreover, culinary training can be expensive. That’s one reason why students at the Culinary Institute of America recently protested that the school’s admission policies diminished the value of their diplomas. CIA students pay about $30,000 annually in tuition. Newspaper reports mentioned one 20-year-old protestor who had accumulated $87,500 in student loans in his quest to learn the intricacies of sous chefing.

Meanwhile, the BLS reports the 2010 median annual wage for computer programmers was $72,630 while top performers in the field made about $115,610. I claim one reason such jobs go begging is that there are no reality shows analogous to Cake Boss to stoke the imagination of would-be programmers.

But it’s easy to see why you can’t find a Coding Channel on cable. When big-name chef Gordon Ramsey confronts clueless restaurant owners on his Kitchen Nightmares show, there is drama involved. And it is easy to understand why serving raw chicken is a bad thing. I can’t see viewers working up the same amount of interest if a Ramsey-lookalike programming guru gets in the face of a hapless victim and screams, “You parsed the .config file manually?? Are you mad??”

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