As outsourcing gathers steam, computer science interest wanes

Computer science degree enrollments are trending down and down

It’s become routine for high-tech offshore development firms such as Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. to add new employees. Head count at the Teaneck, N.J., firm is up 10% from the prior quarter to 26,750 employees, Cognizant reported this week. And by the end of the year, the company expects to have more than 35,000 employees.

What’s become routine as well is declining interest among U.S. college students in computer science. The Washington-based Computing Research Association (CRA) recently reported that the number of bachelor’s degrees in computer science fell 17% in the 2004-05 academic year from the previous year to 11,808 at Ph.D.-granting universities. Those schools represent about 30% of the total undergrads in the U.S. The same trend may also be affecting academic programs that combine business and IT skills training.

“It’s almost like somebody flipped a switch on the undergrads,” said David Meinert, a professor who also heads a master's program in computer information systems at Missouri State University in Springfield. That program combines business and IT training.

In the fall of 2000, Missouri State had 982 students enrolled in its undergraduate information systems program and another 216 in its computer sciences program. In the fall of 2005, the enrollments had dropped sharply, to 310 and 161, respectively. Meinert sees the same problem at other schools and says it has consequences for employers: “a shortage of highly qualified entry-level IT professionals.”

Blame for the decline is based on several things: the collapse of the dot-com bubble, fears about offshore outsourcing and slack overall IT job growth.

The American Electronics Association, a Washington-based industry group, said last month that IT employment in the high-tech sector was at 5.6 million in 2005, a 1% increase from the previous year and the first time since 2001 that the number of IT jobs increased. (In 2001, the group counted 6.5 million high-tech jobs.) With employment in the telecommunications sector weighing down the overall IT job picture -- the number of telecom jobs dropped by 42,000 between 2004 and 2005 -- the overall IT employment picture may be better than it seems. The number of software jobs increased by 32,000 over the same period. And the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics, which counted 460,000 computer software engineers in 2004, is forecasting employment in that area to increase to 682,000 by 2014, a 48% jump.

Jay Vegso, who prepared the CRA’s report on enrollment and graduate trends, said enrollments are showing a “delayed reaction to the 2001-2002 slowdowns in the tech sector.” Computer science enrollments, because of this lag, are usually out of sync with technology sector needs, he said.

But Vegso also expects the number of graduates to continue to decline because of a drop in computer science enrollments, which have fallen by half from about 16,000 in 2000.

Not everyone sees declining enrollments in some core IT programs as a problem. David Foote, of Foote Partners LLC, a management consultancy and IT workforce research firm in New Canaan, Conn., said companies are hiring people from all kinds of backgrounds, even liberal arts, and giving them the IT training they need on the job. “The world is asking for a completely different type of professional,” he said.

But companies still need IT skills, and one vendor that has been trying to get more students involved in mainframe work is IBM. The experience of Jason Arnold illustrates how companies are recruiting.

Arnold graduated with a degree in computer science and mathematics from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb in December, and is now working on a graduate degree in that same field at DePaul University in Chicago. Arnold learned how to program in Basic when he was 10. At NIU, he started studying computer science and took an assembly language course that involved working on a mainframe. Although DePaul didn’t have mainframe training, Arnold said that in his final semester last fall at NIU, he saw a posting for an IBM mainframe contest and signed up for it. The contest involved a series of increasingly difficult steps, similar to what a systems programmer might encounter.

He finished third out of the 700 who participated.

Arnold and other top scorers traveled to IBM’s mainframe facility in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where IBM lined up interviews with some of its customers. He received two internship offers and a job offer with IBM to provide mainframe support, which he took. He starts his training in July.

Arnold is clearly aware of the changes in IT and the growing use of offshore workers, but he hasn’t really examined what those issues mean yet. In the meantime, he said, he sees a good future for the mainframe, adding that “for now, I’m happy I got a job.”

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