Anything but IT

Many students see an advanced degree in IT as a ticket to obsolescence and outsourcing. They have other plans.

Educators and IT industry executives are warning that a crisis is looming in the IT job market. Only this time, it's not that there are too many job hunters seeking too few positions. To the contrary, they say that the U.S. isn't producing IT experts in the quantity and quality that it needs to remain the leader of the global IT market.

In an effort to search out the views and perceptions that may be fueling this approaching crisis, Computerworld interviewed a dozen undergraduate and graduate students who are preparing for careers in IT, as well as professors responsible for training them and executives who are recruiting them into the workforce.

Students told us that advanced technical degrees are expensive and may not provide the skills they need to be competitive in the job market. Many plan to seek business degrees instead of technical degrees in graduate school because they fear that they are more likely to be outsourced if they don't have business qualifications

Elsewhere in academia, prominent academics have been warning for years that the U.S. is producing far too few advanced degree holders in the computer science and IT research fields. In 1997, for example, Eugene Spafford, a professor of computer science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., warned members of Congress that of 5,500 doctorates in computer science and engineering awarded by North American universities between 1992 and 1997, only eight were awarded to U.S. citizens.

Anything But IT
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Image Credit: Rich Lillash
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In a new study, Corey Schou, director of the National Information Assurance Training and Education Center at Idaho State University in Pocatello, says that the dearth of people with advanced degrees in IT continues. And while the number of two- and four-year degree programs in IT-related fields is rising, the student base has dropped.

Fears of Outsourcing

"At present, there is a lack of interest in this discipline," says Mathew J. Palakal, chairman of the Department of Computer and Information Sciences at Purdue. "This could be due to the uncertainties in the job market. Outsourcing is on everybody's mind, and computer science is considered as a high-risk career choice."

Students echo that concern. Fears of outsourcing played a role in Katherine Farmer's decision to seek an advanced degree. Farmer is studying computer engineering and computer science at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. She expects to see a greater demand in the U.S. for high-level design and development work as more low-level jobs are moved offshore.

But others shun IT altogether. "I think new students are scared to get into the IT field of study," says Jeremy Bucchi, an undergrad at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "With all the news of shifting jobs offshore, [prospective] IT students may be tentative about pursuing a career in computers."

Palakal and others say they also fear that colleges and universities aren't teaching students what they need to know to succeed in the U.S. IT job market, particularly as new security pressures raise the bar for what it means to be skilled in IT.

"There is a disconnect between what most universities teach and what is needed in the job market," says Palakal. "A traditional computer science curriculum prepares students for academic pursuit and not necessarily for the business world. The business community then must train the graduates to make them employable."

Scott Orr, a network engineer at Purdue, says many universities are now establishing industrial advisory boards to counsel faculty about current IT needs and to better prepare students for the workforce.

Yet despite the impending crisis, current demand is still low. Mike Kendall, president of Kendall Placement Group Inc. in St. Louis, says most firms slowed recruiting during the recession and are only now beginning to once again hire recent college graduates.

After suspending university and college recruiting for several years, ThoughtWorks Inc., a systems integrator in Chicago, resumed recruiting recent graduates in 2004.

Despite having hired only five recent U.S. graduates so far, the global IT professional services firm is launching an intensive immersion program for new recruits. In an interesting twist, the ThoughtWorks boot camp is based overseas.

"As part of our new-hire program, we are sending all of our entry-level hires to a three-month boot camp located in our Bangalore, India, office," says Sonia Muhaimeen, a senior recruiter at ThoughtWorks U.S.

In the new world of global IT, workers need more than just technical skill, she says. "Our people must be a cultural fit as well as being extremely savvy technical individuals."

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