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
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
”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
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
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.”