Tuesday, May 28, 2024

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

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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


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


”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


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


”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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