Will Fewer Computer Students Hurt U.S. IT Market?

The number of computer science and engineering students is dwindling. Is this bad news for any already troubled industry, or is the market simply righting itself?
Outsourcing is a hot button topic these days. Unions and displaced workers are up in arms about it, saying their jobs have been sent overseas. Corporations are putting up a stiff rearguard action to defend it, saying they can't compete without saving money by using lower-paid programmers and help desk technicians in countries like India and China.

But there is another aspect to this issue of IT talent.

There is a steadily diminishing U.S. base of up-and-coming technical talent. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics and a series of recent studies, the number of engineers and computer science students are dwindling.

''We've seen a net loss of computer science enrollments in recent years,'' says Russell Shackelford, Education Board Chair for the New York-based Association of Computer Machinery (ACM). ''But overall, it is difficult to gauge the extent of the problem.''

Certain university campuses have certainly experienced a severe downturn. MIT, for instance, has seen computer science enrollments drop 44 percent since 1999.

Supply and Demand

One school of thought believes the drop in IT and engineering students is nothing more than a correction based on the laws of supply and demand. There was a shortage of IT talent in the mid-1990s during the Internet boom, and then there was a glut after the bubble burst. Pretty soon, industry observers say, the market will right itself.

''We are experiencing a response to market conditions,'' says ACM's Shackelford. ''The dot-com crash dried up the supply. But then again, many of the students signing up in the late 1990s were chasing the money and lacked the passion required for a lifetime in technology.''

Shackelford makes another point about the numbers.

Yes, the number of students studying computer science has dipped. But the number of different technology degrees being offered has widened considerably. In addition to computer science, there is computer engineering, software engineering and IT degrees.

So where do we really stand nationwide, and is this an issue that merits action?

Probably the best recent study was the Taulbee Survey, which is based on responses from 177 university computer departments around North America. The study shows a diminishing number of Ph.D. graduates since 1991, with 2003 being the second worst year since the 1980s. The number of students entering Ph.D programs fell 5 percent for that year. Meanwhile, the number of bachelor degrees dropped more than 3 percent and were projected to go down another 7 percent in 2004. To make matters worse, the number of undergraduate majors dropped 23 percent.

This downslide, some industry observers say, could accelerate the offshoring move.

''The loss of technology skill sets tends to accelerate the migration of IT jobs overseas,'' says Rob Enderle, an analyst with the San Jose-based Enderle Group.

This fall off in up-and-coming IT workers is paralleled in the engineering sector. But there the problem set in much earlier.

The number of bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering increased steadily from 1900 until its peak in 1986 with 78,178 graduates or 7.9 percent of the total number of grads. It has since declined to about 63,000 per year and comprises only 5.5 percent of all degrees awarded.

And study after study demonstrates a surprising indifference to technology among today's youth.

Last year's Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, for example, highlighted the fact that 42 percent of teenage boys wanted to be athletes, while 32 percent of teenage girls favored becoming actresses. Few of either sex demonstrate much engagement with the idea of entering science and technology fields.

Educational Neglect

While technology education languishes in the U.S., it is building up strength in many foreign countries.

The backing of technical education in Russia, for example, has that country brimming with talented resources. A full 50 percent of that country's graduates major in science; 55 out of every 10,000 Russians are engineers, one of the highest ratios in the world. Add to that the fact that 4 percent of programmers working in the world today are Russian.

Microsoft Research figures highlight the fact that Russia graduates 180,000 people a year with the necessary skills to make it in IT. India came in next with 60,000, and then China with 50,000. No other country in the developing world, including the U.S., comes close.

Here in the States, this apparent dearth of technically inclined talent in the educational pipeline may eventually begin to impact the top hierarchy of American business.

Consider that 22 percent of Fortune 200 CEOs have undergrad engineering degrees, making it the most commonly held degree for that career position. Engineering-based CEOs well outnumber their counterparts with liberal arts, business or law degrees.

In the IT field, the number of bosses with technical degrees is even higher.

''It's the engineers, programmers and IT innovators who give the lawyers, administrators and sales people something to do,'' says Steve Heard, CEO of the Futures Channel, a Los Angeles-based production company that focuses on education, engineering, technology and space. ''We cannot continue to neglect technology as the forefront of our educational efforts.''

Heard and his team are approaching the problem at a grassroots level.

They have created a large digital video library profiling a wide range of careers and projects which involve real-world applications of mathematics, science, technology, and the arts. These popular programs show how vital technology is in the real world, along with the many fascinating employment possibilities that spring from an early grounding in science and technology.

''We have to start early and give kids a reason for studying technical subjects,'' says Heard. ''It's vital that we fire up the imagination of our young for careers in space, advanced computer systems, and applied engineering.''

''We have to go back to the basics -- job fairs, recruiting in the schools, showing people that there really is a lot of future in technology,'' says Enderle. ''Not everything is being outsourced by a long shot, yet many believe this is now the case.''






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