- - Monday, November 19, 2018

It’s an unfortunate reality in this day and age that higher education is failing to connect many Americans with fulfilling, high-paying jobs. People come out of college saddled with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and a degree that gets them nowhere. The picture is dire: According to one report, student loan debt is now more than $1.5 trillion nationwide, with 44 million Americans in debt.

Having served as a member of the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges, I am well aware of the importance of higher education. However, as our economy continues to change, we must find alternative ways to educate people for success.

So, what’s the solution? That’s a complicated question with many possible answers. But one thing’s for sure: We need to focus on giving people the skills they need to succeed without having to incur massive amounts of debt. Those skills need to be ones which enable people to find work in stable, high-paying jobs in the modern economy.

Computer coding is one such skill.

The word “coding” might make you think of green symbols raining down a computer screen like “The Matrix,” or Agent Garcia from “Criminal Minds.” But it’s actually so much more than a popular trope in entertainment. It’s a major driver of our economy, and a practical solution to the inadequacies of higher education for many people.

Learning to code gives people the ability to enter one of the hottest sectors of the economy. According to a report by the analysis firm CompTIA, the tech industry employed more than 11.5 million people in 2017, and produced an economic output of $1.6 trillion. That constituted roughly 9.2 percent of our economy.

Such a massive contribution from technology is part of why our economy is currently booming. Couple this with President Trump’s pro-growth deregulatory platform, and it’s safe to say our economy is going to keep trucking faster, bringing more opportunities to Americans.

Coding isn’t just a feature of the tech industry. It affects almost every other industry in our economy. According to one report, nearly half of all coding job openings are in industries outside of tech, such as health care and finance. So, you don’t have to work for a Silicon Valley tech company to be a coder.

It was encouraging to see Mr. Trump sign a directive, spearheaded by Ivanka Trump, which steers $200 million in funding toward putting coding training in schools nationwide. This policy mirrors many efforts by major tech companies to give coding a more prominent place in our education system. Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a meeting between Mr. Trump and the heads of major tech companies, went so far as to say that coding “should be a requirement in every public school.”

He’s right. That’s why this directive by the president (which uses funds already appropriated by Congress and doesn’t raise taxes) is so important. It goes a long way to training the workforce of the future.

But what about the workforce of the present? What about the people who have a degree they can’t use, or who can’t afford to enter an expensive four-year coding program at a university?

Well, there are options there, too. “Coding bootcamps,” like Flatiron School, located on the East Coast, provides students a short-term, comprehensive training program in coding and prepares them to immediately enter the job market. And these programs usually run a lot cheaper than any major degree.

Coding bootcamps aren’t only for those living in big coastal cities. There are plenty of bootcamps scattered across the heartland, like devCodeCamp in Milwaukee. These schools are usually very flexible and accommodating, and many bootcamps offer online programs to students. As was described in a recent story in InsideSources, devCodeCamp goes so far as to offer free housing on site for its students.

Today’s traditional higher education system is not affordable or practical for many people who want to learn the necessary skills to succeed in today’s economy. That’s why our nation must champion and embrace workforce development programs that have been introduced by the president as well as alternative education programs, such as coding bootcamps, providing people the skills they need without the exorbitant cost of higher-education.

• State Senator-elect Todd Johnson serves as a member of the North Carolina Board of Community Colleges.

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