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Computer Science's Perception

Job prospects are bright, yet worries still linger

BY MARGO McCALL

Not a week goes by that a report doesn’t come out on high salary ranges for software developers or the need for more high-technology workers. Yet at the same time, there’s a lingering perception that computer scientists are being laid off or outsourced, if they’re even able to get hired in the first place.

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That disconnect is partly to blame for computer science failing to rebound after the 2002 dot-com collapse. “The downslide seems to have stopped. But if there’s any recovery, it’s not yet apparent,” said Stuart Zweben, an Ohio State University professor of computer science and engineering who analyzes the Computing Research Association’s annual Taulbee Survey.

Computer Science EnrollmentsThe CRA, an association of more than 200 academic departments and research labs, has been tracking computer science education trends at North American PhD-granting institutions since 1974. It has seen PhD graduates scramble for the security of academia in tough economic times and flock to private industry when boom times return. But despite the economic ebb and flow, computer science undergraduate enrollments and the number of degrees awarded still haven’t recovered from their precipitous drop in 2002.

In 2006/2007, there were 30,000 undergraduate students enrolled in computer science, half the level as in 2000/2001. The 8,000 computer science degrees awarded in 2006/2007 compared with 14,000 awarded three years before that, as the above CRA figure shows.

Puzzling paradox

The disparity has those in the field scratching their heads. “The major ought to be appealing,” said Zweben. “All the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts and anything you want to look at economically say computing people are in demand. The job market is very good for the graduates.” 

Ed Lazowska, the University of Washington’s Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering, agrees.

“Since 2004, hiring has been going gangbusters. It is every bit as nuts right now as it was in 2001 for bachelor’s graduates. At companies like Amazon and Microsoft, students are being brought in as interns and then hired. They often don’t even show up on the job market,” said Lazowska, who serves as chair of the CRA’s Computing Community Consortium.

Yet some clearly haven’t forgotten the downturn’s toll on technology jobs. Outsourcing has caused further consternation. Even though companies outsourced work throughout the boom, once US technology jobs began drying up, the practice suddenly became controversial. 

Zweben said the situation was magnified by the large numbers of computer science grads streaming out of colleges at that time. 

“In the late ’90s, computer science was the hottest thing since sliced bread. You had this horde of newly minted computer science graduates and the market couldn’t absorb it,” he said. 

Offering reassurances 

He recalls having to reassure prospective students and their parents that the industry would bounce back. “I asked them to think about whether computing is going to be an area that is going to be in demand for society—not just for computing jobs but for jobs that support other disciplines. It was hard to sell that to people, but I kept telling the story and eventually it proved to be more or less right.” 

Although fresh computer science grads are finding job opportunities again, the message might not have trickled down yet to the teachers, parents and high-school counselors who influence students’ choice of majors. And the perception of post-graduation job prospects is often an important consideration in choosing a major. 

“I’m against students choosing a major based on vocational opportunities. But let’s face it. Mom and dad say, ‘Dilbert, go out and find a major where you can earn a living,’” said Lazowska. 

Zweben said many in academia used the post-downturn period to rethink curriculum. “We had to talk about what kinds of skills we were looking to give to people. We had some soul-searching to do in terms of what we were offering,” he said. 

With the industry changing, it might be more than lingering misperceptions that are affecting computer science enrollments. Zweben theorizes that some students are filtering into programs for cybersecurity, game development, or other new information-technology fields. Foreign students might also be enrolling in computer science programs in their home countries, rather than traveling to North American universities for their education. 

Some might also believe that computer science’s heyday is over. However, if some would-be students believe all the computing discoveries have been made, they’re dead wrong. Zweben and Lazowska say there are still plenty of computer science challenges to overcome. Furthermore, the field has become more mainstream—making computer science degrees useful in just about any industry. 

The buzz is back 

“There’s every reason to believe this has turned around and is coming back,” Lazowska said. “There’s a buzz back—both around the excitement of the field and the employment possibilities.” 

Lazowska believes the misperception about computer scientists’ job prospects will take care of itself. “People understand that now we’re having a boom in startup companies again, and that entry-level salaries are up, and that offshoring isn’t something that’s making a significant dent.”

But where the computing community could do a better job, he said, is in spreading word of computer science’s capacity to change the world and tackle important issues, from healthcare to safety to climate change.

“We have to help people understand that computer science is a field where you can affect and improve people’s lives as opposed to a field where you can just make a buck,” Lazowska said. “Many of the things people care about—transforming healthcare so we have better knowledge of treatments, or reducing auto accidents, or transforming the conduct of science through new approaches to science in mountains of data. All of these are advances that people care about and are fundamentally at their heart computer science.” 

Another misperception to correct is that computer scientists work alone. “People have a notion that working in software involves sitting at a workstation alone drinking Coke and eating Snickers bars. In reality, it’s incredibly collaborative. It involves working in teams to solve real world problems,” Lazowska said.

Vegso said in response to the continuing problem of low enrollments, the CRA has set up a task force to look into the image of computing. “Before, it might not have been necessary, but now it’s time to address the myths of the field and stereotypes,” he said. CW (September 2008)

(Figure courtesy of Computing Research Association)

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