The Tech Education Con
Big tech companies are spending millions to get young people into coding and STEM — not out of altruism, but to create a future supply of cheap labor.
Apple, Google, and Microsoft are the champions of teaching tech in schools. For many, they are saving education. Apple cuts prices on their hardware for dot-edu email owners to make their products available to students. Google competes by selling cheap Chromebooks and provides a suite of education services to improve teamwork and collaboration. Microsoft has countless programs to empower classrooms with new technologies, such as teaching with Hololens.
These companies have catchy slogans for their programs like “expanding learning for everyone” and “empower every student on the planet to achieve more.” But we shouldn’t be fooled. These companies position themselves as good corporate citizens by empowering students with tech skills and accelerating STEM education; their motives, however, aren’t pure.
While it may seem like these companies are competing in the education market simply to broaden their consumer base and give back a little, their collective strategy is much more concerning. Tech oligarchs are pushing skills like coding in education to train their own future labor force — and pay them low wages.
It makes sense that these companies are playing the long game on skills and wages. Labor is among their most expensive costs, with tech worker salaries running to the low six figures at Facebook and Google. But with few workers possessing the skills to do these jobs, a competitive salary is the only way that tech companies can compete for talent today.
There is no reason tech workers should expect disproportionately high salaries to be permanent, however. Execs are already doing what they can to suppress wages. The shorter-term strategies are clear. Tech companies collude via anti-poaching schemes to keep wages down. They use non-compete disclosures to push wages down by forbidding workers to get jobs from competitors. They also take advantage of the H-1B visa, hiring immigrant workers for cheaper than their American counterparts.
But we should also note their long-term strategy. Under the charitable guise of providing tech education for all, tech giants are doing whatever they can to increase the labor supply of technically skilled workers so that they can cut tech workers’ wages.
STEM Education and the Rise of the For-Profit Sector
In 1967, then–California governor Ronald Reagan criticized a liberal arts education, declaring that there were “certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without.” In other words, the reason to go to college was simply to get a job. As part of his broader argument to cut funding for public education, he added that the state should not be subsidizing intellectual curiosity.
Obama offered a new iteration of this idea in his last years as president. Having wooed Silicon Valley execs for financial support during his campaign, he announced his plan for STEM education as a cure to America’s economic woes. His goal was to “provide opportunities to learn computer science for all students.” At the 2015 White House Science Fair, Obama announced a $90 million “Let Everyone Dream” campaign to expand STEM opportunities to marginalized students.
But despite Obama’s push for STEM and some recent across-the-board increases, state spending on higher education remains historically low — nearly $9 billion below pre-financial crisis levels a decade earlier. This is good news for the for-profit sector. The combined demand for STEM education and lack of state funding for education leaves a gap in the market that big tech companies are eager to fill.
Google has developed their own computer science programs for educators. Microsoft is spending $75 million to increase access to computer science education over three years starting in 2016. Investments in education technology rose to a historical level of $9.5 billion in 2018.
The push for STEM has continued under Trump. Working with Ivanka Trump, tech execs from Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Salesforce agreed to collectively spend $300 million toward computer science education to prepare more students for tech jobs of the future. Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke with Donald Trump shortly after he assumed office, advocating coding classes as a requirement in public schools.
To further the cause, Code.org, backed by CEOs from Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Infosys, campaigns on an apparent “skill gap” in the US. The idea is that there aren’t enough coders to fill all the programming jobs out there. They suggest that there are over five hundred thousand unfilled programming positions in the country.
But as tech education writer Audrey Watters points out, those numbers are a vast distortion of reality — propaganda from the tech giants. The five hundred thousand figure comes from a projection by the Bureau of Labor Statistics about the number of computer and IT jobs that will be added to the economy by 2026. In the aggregate, tech workers are also not seeing any substantial growth in wages — one we’d expect, at least according to mainstream economics, if there was a shortage in the supply of workers.
These tech companies are not simply investing in STEM education to equip students with the skills needed to succeed in the twenty-first century out of the goodness of their hearts. Nor do they just want a cut out of the growing market of education, which for private education alone brought in $68 billion in revenue as of last year. With the help of the White House, tech companies want to get young people trained in computer science to build an army of reserve tech labor. And where better to learn the skills for the job than from the job creators themselves?
Coding Bootcamps and MOOCs
Coding bootcamps are highly intensive programs where adults, having not studied computer science in school, can develop coding skills over several months. Upon completion, these programs usually promise students a tech job.
For the tech giants, these bootcamps are low-cost solutions for increasing the labor supply in the short term. In 2017 alone, some twenty-two thousand students graduated from such academies. In comparison, fifty-nine thousand students in 2015 graduated from college with a computer science degree.
Google partnered with the professional development school General Assembly to launch a coding bootcamp for Android application development. Facebook teamed up with Dev Bootcamp to fund scholarships for their nineteen-week web development program. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has backed the coding bootcamp Andela to place engineers throughout Africa. With tremendous corporate support, the coding bootcamp industry is on track to make $219 million in revenue in 2018.
Massively open online courses (MOOCs) employ a similar strategy. But instead of training students from unrelated majors, they target other STEM degree-holders who are trying to enter the tech industry. It’s not too hard for a physics student who already writes R code to learn web development from a MOOC in order to get an entry position at a startup.
Like coding bootcamps, MOOCs are big business. In 2017, Coursera, one of the biggest MOOC companies, was just short of $100 million in annual revenue, a dramatic jump from the $1 million they made in 2013.
With their ability to rapidly increase the supply of tech labor, tech companies have rallied around MOOCs. Cofounded by an ex-Google exec, Coursera maintains a deep relationship with Google and is part of their Grow with Google initiative. Similarly, EdX and Pluralsight — close competitors of Coursera — have a close relationship with Microsoft. Their partnership involves teaching students how to code, specifically on Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, Azure.
By supporting coding bootcamps and MOOCs, tech companies shift the responsibility of training workers to the workers themselves. In order to keep up in this digital economy, workers must now pay private companies (coding bootcamps and MOOC providers) and spend additional hours reeducating themselves with new skills.
Most outrageous is the Obama-era initiative Educational Quality through Innovative Partnership (EQUIP) — an experiment allowing students to take out federal loans to pay for “new models of education and training.” Put simply, this is a way for low-income students to borrow money from the government to pay for coding bootcamps and MOOCs.
While bootcamps and MOOCs are a way for workers to pay for their own employment training, relieving corporations of the burden, EQUIP legitimizes that practice on a policy level. As Tressie McMillan Cottom points out, it’s poor students paying a tax for job entry — and the government subsidizing the practice.
Tech Education and Philanthropy
It is impossible to talk about tech education and philanthropy without talking about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its younger equivalent, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Created from the immense wealth of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, respectively, these organizations — aside from helping these billionaires keep their money isolated from public coffers and democratic control — have their eyes set on expanding tech education in some of the world’s most impoverished countries.
In the same way the American military uses the idea of “freedom” as a reason to invade other nations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg initiatives use philanthropic means to exploit some of the poorest and most vulnerable regions in the world. For Gates and Zuckerberg, foreign tech education is a way to develop cheap labor for their corporate empires — and a way to garner praise while doing it.
Gates and Zuckerberg are both backers of Bridge International Academies (BIA), a for-profit education business that provides low-fee, private, and informal schools throughout Africa. Highly profitable, BIA streamlines their education system by collecting massive amounts of data on student performance and compares students across classes, regions, and countries, making standardized testing and score-based performance central to their education system. By backing companies like BIA, Silicon Valley investors yield sizable profits at the expense of some of the world’s most marginalized children while also delegitimizing public education in those countries.
While not exactly technical training, BIA’s tech-driven education builds the foundation for many students in Africa to enter the tech job market. It’s no coincidence that one of Microsoft’s largest international investments is in “transforming the [African] continent.” Named 4Afrika, this initiative is a large recruiter for local workers. Through the initiative, Microsoft has invested millions in “educating the next generation of African web developers” in order to galvanize the massive and largely untapped market in Africa.
Gates and Zuckerberg have a long track record when it comes to privatizing public education in the US as well. Zuckerberg donated $100 million to replace Newark public schools with charters. Gates was a primary backer of Pearson’s Common Core system, a now-widely adopted curriculum for K-12 that emphasizes standardized testing for its efficiency and low costs. Pearson and Microsoft signed a deal to put the Common Core courses on Microsoft devices, allowing Microsoft to compete against Google’s Chromebooks and Apple’s iPads for school district spending. Gates, who is still a major shareholder of Microsoft stock, is cashing in on this, too.
Summit Learning, Facebook’s attempt at education software has been adopted by over three hundred schools nationwide. Students have complained about the ineffectiveness of the application, and last November students in New York City walked out in protest of the teaching method. This should come as no surprise given that the tool was built largely by Facebook engineers, none of whom are trained in pedagogy.
And while the short-term financial gains can seem significant, the broader project of privatizing education isn’t just about making a quick buck for these companies. It’s also a long-term transformation that benefits capital in multiple way, from new (and often unregulated) business opportunities to make money to churning out the next generation of pliant workers, in tech and elsewhere.
The tech giants are obsessed with technical training initiatives for poor and marginalized students. Microsoft works with Girls Who Code, while Google backs the National Society of Black Engineers. Amazon launched a program, blatantly named Amazon Future Engineer, that encourages more black, Latino, and female students to code.
For the tech giants, it’s a clever move. They get showered with good PR for practicing diversity and inclusion (despite their own companies not actually being diverse) and save on hiring costs by paying women and black tech workers lower-than-average salaries — women and black software engineers both make 8 percent less money on average than their male and white counterparts, respectively.
Public education, like any institution, has to change with the times. Learning digital skills like coding should be part of any twenty-first century educational program.
But tech giants’ interest in remaking our education systems isn’t altruistic. We have to remain skeptical of their technological solutionism and tax-evading philanthropy.
As education is taken over by private corporations, with tech companies playing a key role, and the White House continuing to promote STEM as the only solution for students, we should ask: who benefits from a growing supply of reserve tech labor? Who wins from the nationwide push for STEM? And what is lost in the single-minded pursuit of this goal?