the Technology Job MarketSlight decline in new computer science majors, prompts researchers to ponder current, future state of technology employmentBy Phaedra Brotherton
The downturn in the economy and the recent dot-com and technology bust may be causing more undergraduates to think twice about majoring in computer science or engineering. In 2001 and 2002, there was a slight decline in the number of new students majoring in computer science or computer engineering, reports the Computing Research Association, made up of U.S. and Canadian academic departments as well as research and professional computing organizations.
This trend is showing up after a steady increase of new computer science majors between 1995 and 2000, which had the highest number of new computer science and computer engineering majors. However, the reason for the slight decline over the past two years remains uncertain.
“As yet, we cannot determine whether this was simply an artifact of the changes in the departments’ reporting, or the start of a new trend,” say CRA researchers in their 2000-2001 survey of 215 doctoral degree-granting computer science departments. “Perhaps the decline in the technology industry is making computer science and engineering less alluring to new undergraduates.”
Dr. Stuart Zweben, professor and chair of Ohio State University’s Department of Computer and Information Science, says indeed the number of computer science majors nationwide appears to be on the decline. “This certainly seems true in most Big 10 schools, with whom I have annual meetings. It certainly is true at Ohio State,” Zweben says.
But Zweben, who serves on the CRA board of directors, also points out that the decline is happening from a very high base and “from a period where all computer science programs were in demand far in excess of the resources available to handle the programs effectively.”
He cites the following three reasons for the decline:
n The burst of the dot-com bubble. “During the late ’90s, students were seeing all of these great jobs for computing graduates, with high salaries, stock options, other ‘get-rich-quick’ opportunities. They flocked into computer science in droves,” Zweben says. But things have changed. “During the past 18-24 months, they have been seeing stories of these same people losing fortunes, getting laid off and companies going belly-up. So they are dissuaded from entering the profession, fearing that jobs won’t be there in abundance.”
n The high demand for computer science majors led to more competitive admission requirements. “For example, at Ohio State, one needs to have a 3.0 GPA in pre-major courses in order to be accepted to the computing majors,” Zweben says. “After a few years of seeing high barriers to entry, many students come to their university and self-select into other, less competitive majors.”
n New computing-related programs have sprung up at universities that in some way compete for computer science students. “These programs are in the broad ‘information technology’ area, and sometimes have that name or some variant of it.”
Zweben advises students to look at “the importance of the computing field when analyzing the current job market. Since computing is, and will continue to be, an essential element of all commerce and business, the forecast is that there will be great continued demand (and even short supply) in this field,” he says. “Students now entering universities should note that they are making decisions for a major from which they will graduate four or five years from now, and for a 30-year career. So don’t look at today’s job market; assess the importance of the field over the longer term.”
Zweben says that universities will continue to adjust their barriers to admission relative to the supply-demand or selectivity considerations of the institution. “At Ohio State, we already have reduced the barrier to a 3.0 (GPA) from its high-watermark of 3.2 a year ago,” he notes.
CRA researchers also point out that many computer science programs already may be filled to capacity and “may be operating in ‘saturation’ mode, where they simply cannot accept more undergraduate majors given their teaching resources.”
Due to the substantial increase in new computer science majors between 1995 and 2000, plenty of students continue to graduate with computer science degrees, says Jay Vegso, manager of membership and information services for CRA.
“While the production numbers will continue to increase for the next few years, due to the number already in the pipeline, if the trend (of slight declines) continues, we will probably see a decrease in the number of students graduating with computer science majors in the next few years,” Vegso says.
IT Skills Shortage?
The trend showing a possible decline in interest in computer science as a major comes at a time when companies and groups representing U.S. technology professionals continue to debate whether there is an IT skills shortage requiring foreign workers to fill industry needs.
When asked if the IT shortage still exists, Marjorie Bynum, vice president of work-force development for the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), a trade group for companies in the IT industry, cited ITAA research showing that IT managers will need to hire 1.1 million workers over the upcoming months.
“This suggests an ongoing demand for skilled IT workers,” Bynum says. She says that ITAA believes it remains important for companies to have access to foreign workers to meet specific industry demands. But she adds that ITAA does support continued development and training of the U.S. IT work force.
Many professional groups, however, question whether the current cap of 195,000 on the number of H-1B visas permitted encourages companies to hire foreign professionals, who are often paid lower wages, instead of re-training and hiring the many U.S. IT workers who are now unemployed.
H-1B visas are issued to foreign nationals for temporary employment in certain specialty occupations. In October 2000, the U.S. Congress raised the annual H-1B visa cap to 195,000. When this authorization expires on Sept. 30, the cap will revert to 65,000 unless Congress takes further action.
IEEE-USA, a professional society representing more than 235,000 electrical, electronics, computer and software engineers, is mounting an effort to return the yearly number of H-1B visa workers permitted to the 65,000 level.
“Congress should let the H-1B visa level return to its historical 65,000 level,” IEEE-USA president-elect John Steadman says. “We believe this is an appropriate position, especially in light of record unemployment among U.S. engineers and computer scientists.”
Private employers who want to hire H-1B workers must pay the government a $1,000 application fee, most of which goes to support technician-level training projects sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and scholarships administered by the National Science Foundation. IEEE-USA believes Congress should see to it that revenue from the H-1B program goes toward retraining unemployed engineers, scientists and other high-tech professionals already in the United States.
“In the long term, it should focus on supporting programs that help financially needy students complete degrees in computer science, engineering and mathematics,” Steadman says.
Employment outlook for new grads
Despite the economic downturn and debate of the IT skills shortage, the outlook for the IT work force appears to be on the upswing, says ITAA’s Bynum.
“According to ITAA’s most recent research, there appears to be a stabilization in the IT work force as both hiring and dismissals of IT professionals have slowed considerably from the past periods,” she says. This decrease in the rate of IT professionals being let go, suggests that employers may be feeling “cautiously optimistic,” when thinking about their future hiring needs, adds Bynum. “This could be good news for new college graduates who are seeking IT jobs.”
Bynum says opportunities seem to be best in technical support and Web and database development. A new and emerging area is information security, which Bynum says is a “growing and thriving area that holds employment opportunities for highly skilled college graduates.” However, network administration has experienced a slight decline in demand.
Bynum says that academic and career advisers should stress to new and potential computer science graduates the importance of hands-on experience. “Experience counts in today’s IT job market,” she says. “A degree alone will not guarantee you a job or even an interview with an employer.”
Also today’s IT professionals need to have good people skills in addition to the technical skills, Bynum says. “The nature of today’s IT work is very business-oriented and involves regular interaction with colleagues and customers,” she says. “Those graduates with a balance of technical and non-technical abilities will have an advantage in the IT job market.”
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