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Why Student JavaScript Developers Are Hard to Find

student-javascript-knowledge

In the 20+ years since its inception, JavaScript has become one of the most popular languages in the world. In fact, it’s the #1 language employers demand worldwide—but even so, it’s a relatively rare skill amongst university students. The question is: why?

In this look at today’s student developers, we’ll explore the root cause behind the JavaScript knowledge gap: why employers need it, and why students aren’t learning it. Plus, we’ll discuss how employers can navigate this sore spot in the early talent workforce.

High demand, moderate supply

It’s no secret why employers need JavaScript expertise: it’s one of the most highly utilized languages in the world of software development. A staggering 95% of web apps are built on JavaScript. It’s the most highly demanded language for employers across the world, and it’s been in the top 10 languages on the TIOBE index for over a decade. 

But for better or worse, the language’s popularity doesn’t translate to the student developer population. Globally, employers need more JavaScript expertise than students have—48% of employers need it, while 42% of students know it, according to the Student Developer Report.

Regionally, that disconnect is most apparent in India and Canada, where student expertise lags behind employer demand. Meanwhile, the US and the UK have the highest relative population of student JavaScript developers:

It’s worth noting that a total 78% of student developers polled in this survey were pursuing a major in Computer Science (CS). So these insights don’t just speak to the skills of student developers: they’re also reflective of CS programs.

So, why the regional discrepancy in JavaScript knowledge? As it turns out, that boils down to two interdependent factors:

JavaScript isn’t a priority for CS programs

It’s true that JavaScript is the #1 language ask for employers across the globe—but that doesn’t mean it’s taught in CS programs.

Take the US, for example: not even 1 of the US News & World Report top Computer Science programs requires students to learn JavaScript in order to earn a degree. (More on that later.)

Regionally, not all students are drawn to self-teaching

When it comes to learning to code, students in the US and UK more likely to self-teach than those in India and Canada:

While it’s challenging to speculate why, exactly, self-teaching is less popular in India and Canada, there is one clear connection: the cohort more likely to self-teach is the same cohort more likely to know JavaScript. It adds up—if students don’t have an opportunity to learn JavaScript in schools, the only way they can learn is by through self-teaching. And if they’re not teaching it to themselves, they won’t learn it.

Why JavaScript gets left out of CS programs

On the surface, the fix for the JavaScript knowledge gap seems simple: universities should start teaching JavaScript. Right?

Unfortunately, the solution isn’t black and white. To most educators, the goal of a CS program isn’t necessarily to accommodate industry demands; instead, the goal is to give students the foundational knowledge they need to understand programming theory.

That foundational knowledge helps learn new concepts in the long run, regardless of the language used to apply them. Language, in this case, isn’t the crux of a CS education: instead, it’s a tool, utilized to teach a broader concept.

In theory, the same concepts could be taught in any number of languages. So if programming language is only a means to teach theory, why not teach those same theories in JavaScript? Again, the solution isn’t quite so simple. The reason is twofold:

The JavaScript ecosystem is in constant flux

First, the JavaScript ecosystem is changing at an alarming rate. In fact, more than half of JavaScript developers feel that JavaScript is changing too fast. And with new libraries, frameworks, and dialects of JavaScript appearing every year, most CS programs don’t have the resources to continually reinvent their curriculums to keep up. To make things harder, CS programs are also tied to a curriculum infrastructure that’s notoriously political and challenging to modify.

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So instead, CS programs focus on old standbys like Java, Python, and C: foundational languages that have existed long-term, and that change at a manageable pace.

It’s not so back-end friendly

The second reason is simple: JavaScript was developed for the front-end. Computer Science, on the other hand, focuses largely on back-end, systems-focused work: more on making applications that perform, less on usability. That’s why back-end heavy languages like Python, Java, and C are so popular amongst CS programs.

That said, in recent years, we’ve seen JavaScript start to seep into the back-end with frameworks like Node.js. So if frameworks like Node.js maintain their popularity, we could potentially see them in CS programs down the line. That is, once they prove they’re sticking around.

For now, a small handful of programs have started offering JavaScript as a part of their offerings. As of spring 2017, Stanford, for example, teaches their introductory programming class in 3 languages: Python, Java, and JavaScript. Only time will tell if they’re the leading edge of an oncoming trend—or if they’ll continue to remain an outlier in the CS community.

Self-taught students: JavaScript goldmine?

When we look at students by major, we see another interesting pattern: students pursuing degrees outside of CS and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are more likely to know JavaScript. The “Other” category includes all student developers pursuing degrees in Business, Music, Psychology, and more—basically, anything major that isn’t CS or STEM related.

We see the same pattern emerge in the majority of JavaScript frameworks. Students studying “Other” degrees know more JavaScript-Based frameworks than their peers in CS and STEM; in fact, they know 4 out of 5 top JavaScript frameworks better than their CS peers:

Thinking about the way students learn JavaScript, these figures start to add up. Since students studying “Other” degrees are unlikely to learn JavaScript in school, they have to rely on self-teaching to learn to code. And the data confirms it—students studying “Other” degrees are far more likely to be self-taught than students in any other major:

So what does this mean for recruiters? Ultimately, it means that self-taught learners may be the best source for JavaScript expertise. That means sourcing candidates from both within and outside of CS.

A quick note on coding bootcamps

It’s hard to talk about early talent JavaScript expertise without mentioning coding bootcamps. Some of the most popular coding bootcamps in the world, like Le Wagon, Flat Iron School, and Full Stack Academy put a heavy emphasis on JavaScript knowledge for their students—you’ll struggle to find any one coding camp curriculum that doesn’t mention it.

And the most JavaScript-centric bootcamps aren’t shy about advocating for the language. After all, coding bootcamps aim to help students transition directly into development jobs; unlike CS programs, their primary goal is to train students to meet industry needs.

It’s likely that emphasis on industry needs that gives bootcamp graduates the advantage when it comes to JavaScript knowledge globally:

So in a way, it’s possible that the JavaScript gap isn’t as prevalent as it seems. But it may be that we’re looking for JavaScript expertise in the wrong places.

How employers can manage the gap

Junior JavaScript-savvy talent is out there—but it’s not as easy to come across as students versed in C or Python. If you’re looking for JavaScript expertise in your early talent sourcing, here’s what you can do to increase your odds of success:

1. Ease front-end expectations for CS students

Computer Science students are systems specialists first. Out of the gate, they’re more likely to know back-end languages and frameworks. On the flip side, they’re far less likely to have mastery of front-end languages and frameworks, especially when it comes to languages like JavaScript. New CS grads that can work across the front and back-end are few and far between. Make sure your asks are reasonable.

2. To increase the odds of finding JavaScript expertise, include non-CS majors

Students developers outside of STEM and CS are more likely to know JavaScript. So if that’s what you need, consider branching out. Art and design based majors may be especially useful majors to include in your search; they’ll have the discerning eye you want in a balanced front-end candidate.

3. Look to non-traditional pools of early talent

Traditionally, most early talent programs lean on university CS programs to find junior technical talent—but JavaScript expertise isn’t their speciality (and for good reason). Coding bootcamps, on the other hand, cater to industry needs, and are heavier on front-end languages and frameworks. If you need junior developers with a command of JavaScript, you might try there: the utility of their skillset may surprise you.


Have you struggled to source JavaScript-savvy early talent? Tell us about your experiences in the comments. And if you’re looking to dig deeper into the state of student developers, check out our Student Developer Report:

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