TORONTO – SAS CEO Jim Goodnight is no stranger to education initiatives, and during a recent trip earlier in the year to Toronto, ITWC got a chance to sit down with him to talk about it.
In his 42 years at the helm of SAS Institute, Goodnight has never been quiet about his focus in education. In 1997 he co-founded an independent college prep day school for students in grades six through 12 called Cary Academy in order to create a model school for integrating technology into all aspects of education. He also launched SAS Curriculum Pathways, which helps develop education software for students and teachers.
In our Q/A with Goodnight, he discusses SAS’ philanthropic focus on education, the importance of STEM, and how he is trying to help end the skills gap.
The following is an edited transcript.
ITWC: At the 2017 SAS Global Forum, you announced that SAS was up to 63 SAS Master’s Programs and 144 joint certifications. Do you feel that it is SAS’ social responsibility to help educate the future workforce?
Jim Goodnight: Well, it certainly is as far as using some of the best software – which we provide – so we do encourage that. People with SAS skills are in high demand. It’s important that the company create additional people that are capable of using our software because when they go get a job, they will all be using SAS.
Our entire philosophical outlook is based on education. We have a group that we spend about five million dollars a year on that does nothing but create free software for schools. It’s called Curriculum Pathways and there are thousands of resources there for teachers and students to tap into from grades one through 12. It’s all free, and we’ve got over two million students right now using them.
ITWC: How did SAS start getting involved with academic institutions? What was the turning point?
Goodnight: We changed from an academic institution (SAS started as a project at North Carolina State University), so we’ve always made our software available to other academic institutions at a very low bar. But part of our philanthropy is to make sure that we do as much as we can for education.
If we are going to have more of an equal society of people, then education is the only way to do so. If you’re in poverty, the only way you’re really going to get out out of poverty is through education. So we’ve got to find ways, especially for low-income students, to make sure that we work especially hard to get them a good education.
ITWC: Last year, you told me about your role as the head of an education task force with the CEOs of the Business Roundtable. Can you elaborate a bit on your role there?
Goodnight: Much of our emphasis on our education committee is skills – trying to end the skills gap that currently exists. There are a lot of programs targeted for community colleges and universities, but to me, the skills gap really starts at kindergarten.
I put together a special subgroup together to study what’s the best way to make sure children can read at grade three. that’s sort of the target that we all agreed on. If you’re not reading by the third grade, you’re in trouble. You’re not going to make it. You’re four times more likely to drop out of high school or not get a high school degree.
So we put a lot of emphasis on that and did a lot of research and came up with about six different recommendations. But the number one recommendation is to get more Pre-K, that’s age 4. Get more of those kids in a qualified Pre-K program, so we can help them get ready to move along into kindergarten.
ITWC: So when it comes to ending the skills gap, it doesn’t just start at a high school level or university level, but before that.
Goodnight: Yeah, we’ve got to get kids interested in STEM. At least 10 per cent more of our kids need to go to college in the STEM fields than they currently do. That’s my rough guess. We’ve got a little over balance right now in liberal arts. We need to get it up to like 50/50 at least. That would be ideal.
And we’ve got to start that at a younger age. We’ve got to get kids more interested in science and math at a younger age. We’ve got to do that.
ITWC: And what sort of skills do students and current tech professionals need to develop around machine learning? How can companies like SAS that are very invested in that technology work with academic institutes to help develop those skills?
Goodnight: I think our Master’s Program is going to help support this. I think we’re up to 83 after adding more in the last year. Those are a great place for companies to go hire people that understand advanced work like data analytics. We continue to try to add more and more of those that touch on the programs.
And we’ve got our education group right now that’s beginning to develop university courses that emphasize a specific skill that’s needed in the marketplace that SAS can help with. We’re trying to be a little more proactive now by reaching out to universities to help them develop courses that are in high demand right now.