Article originally published on Inc.com April15, 2014
I love a good debate, but former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent dig at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg --"You're not going to teach a coal miner to code"--sounds more like a calculated sound bite than a realistic dialogue about retraining displaced American workers.
Bloomberg's comment was part of a larger discussion at the recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit on transitioning to cleaner energy and helping displaced workers once coal production and other industrial facilities are shut down. According to Bloomberg, "Mark Zuckerberg says you can teach them to code and everything will be great. I don't know how to break it to you, but no." As an alternative, Bloomberg suggested subsidies and retraining that are more practical than coding and other skills associated with tech entrepreneurs.
Bloomberg was referencing Zuckerberg's op-ed in The Washington Post from a year ago, as well as the formation of his organization, FWD.us, which is working on comprehensive immigration and education reform. "In a knowledge economy, the most important resources are the talented people we educate and attract to our country," Zuckerberg wrote in the Post article. "A knowledge economy can scale further, create better jobs, and provide a higher quality of living for everyone in our nation."
As a tech executive personally dealing with a shortage of highly skilled talent, I find the exchange of ideas and bantering between the billionaires both refreshing and frustrating. It's exciting to see two highly successful and influential entrepreneurs weigh in on the next wave of industries in America and how we are going to train our workforce to be globally competitive. It's the path we take to transitioning to a knowledge economy that is in question--and neither Bloomberg nor Zuckerberg has it all right.
A Wider View on Training
First, I agree with Bloomberg that we need to rethink training. The real solution for helping displaced coal miners and other workers needs to be more comprehensive than offering up coding classes and hoping for great outcomes. But I find it slightly insulting that he said coal miners couldn't be retrained as programmers.
It's naive to think that people can't switch careers with the right amount of help, training, and opportunities. Certainly there are more jobs in technology than just programming. You must start by really understanding the learning capacity and the desires of the people leaving the jobs in the coal mine. While some coal miners would make great programmers, others might excel in technical support or even sales. We need to consider the individuals and help them with training they want and need.
Second, I agree with Zuckerberg that we need to rethink how to fill technology jobs. It's a shame that bright middle school students whose parents are undocumented in the U.S. can't plan for college under our current system. I am in favor of training and attracting the best and brightest, wherever they are born, and we do need to offer more H-1B visas to talented people who would start American companies and create more jobs. But I would really love to focus our energies on helping the people already at risk in our country, like the coal miners, who deserve to get to that next wave of great jobs.
Third, while I agree with Bloomberg and Zuckerberg on some points, I think they are having the wrong debate. Even though I'm in technology services, I think we need to cast the training net wider to include other industries like health care that are part of the growing knowledge economy and require bright, ambitious people. If another way to close the skills gap is to look to coal miners and other displaced workers to fill those new positions, I'm all in favor.
We can't afford to be shortsighted. We need to open up the dialogue and focus on developing talent in the industries where we really want to compete as a country. More importantly, we need to pave the way with comprehensive planning and vision that brings innovation and real-world practicality together. How do we provide a safety net to help American workers transition from the old economy driven by physical labor to the new economy driven by intellectual property? And how do we help our troops coming home do the same?
While Bloomberg and Zuckerberg will likely continue exchanging flippant remarks in the media to promote their viewpoints, at least they are moving in the right direction. Like most debates, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. As a business owner, I'm glad to see this topic begin to get the traction it deserves.