Hackernoon logoThe Case for a Programming Exemption to Child Labor Laws by@vandivi3r

The Case for a Programming Exemption to Child Labor Laws

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@vandivi3rJohn Vandivier

There is a shortage of qualified programming labor in the US. One thing we can do is increase immigration, but the current political climate throws some cold water on that idea. If Republicans want to cut regulation, here’s a thought: Why not allow an exemption to Child Labor Laws for programming?

The Fair Labor Standards Act was written in 1938 to protect children from employment detrimental to their health and safety. The FLSA restricts the hours that youth under 16 years of age can work and lists hazardous occupations too dangerous for young workers to perform. However, the approach the bill takes is not future-proof: The bill implements a white list rather than a black list. That is, unless your line of work gets a special exemption it is not allowed by default.

A number of exemptions exist. It’s pretty well known that acting is exempt, and there’s also an exemption for working for a business owned by your parents. One lesser known but important exemption is for agriculture. Did you know that as of 2012, nearly 500,000 children as young as six harvested 25 percent of our crops?

Child Labor laws have several arguments in their favor:

  1. Children are physically undeveloped and susceptible to lifelong injury.
  2. Children’s time is better spent getting an education that will benefit them for life.

I don’t think these points hold up in the case of programming. There is hardly a less dangerous job than programming. You’re not going to get injured programming. Agriculture is far more physically demanding.

The education point is interesting, but it also presents a false dichotomy. Learning-by-doing is among the most effective methods of education. Graduates of the traditional education system, even if they go to college, retain next to none of their learning. Instead, learning that persists and doesn’t fade out is learning which is used routinely, such as language and job skills.

This means getting kids out of lecture and into an entry level job or internship might be the best way of educating them! Research shows that learning-by-doing is particularly effective for programming. Institutions like MIT shows programming can be beneficial to cognitive development.

Programming languages are languages, and children learn languages more quickly than adults. In addition, kids these days are already fluent in computer! Kids are already using computers at home and in the classroom. They already communicate with others online.

Some are already programming and contributing to open source or developing small projects on their own. They just can’t get paid for it, and they can’t add it as professional experience to a resume.

I would be a fan of replacing geometry or some other mostly useless class with programming. I think programming will soon become a basic skill, but what I’m suggesting here is nothing as drastic as requiring all kids to learn to program. I’m suggesting that kids who want to program and who have the skill to satisfy an employer should be able to voluntarily work for that employer.

We have a shortage of good programmers and plenty of children and families in desperate need of the additional income a programming job could provide, even an entry level job. We also have an education system that seems to be failing in some ways, and learning-by-doing is an effective alternative. A Child Labor law exemption for programming could solve three problems at once!


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