Continuing a recent trend that has many business leaders worried, the Computing Research Association’s annual survey of universities with Ph.D.-granting programs found a 20-percent drop this year in students completing bachelors degrees in professional IT fields.

The trend–which comes at a time when demand for computer-related skills is increasing, and thousands of baby boomers are retiring from technical jobs–has many business leaders concerned that they won’t find enough workers to maintain expected growth.

"There’s a bit of a perfect storm going on," said Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology, a California-based consulting and staffing service. "I do think it’s serious, and I do think we need to start at the elementary school level and get students talking about math and science."

Although a dearth of high-tech workers has been a problem before, the situation is now more dire because of soaring demand by a wide range of businesses–from tech companies such as Microsoft to insurance companies and local hospitals.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 854,000 professional IT jobs will be added between 2006 and 2016, an increase of about 24 percent. When replacement jobs are added in, total IT job openings in the 10-year period is estimated at 1.6 million.

The bureau estimates that one in 19 new jobs created during the 10-year period will be professional IT positions.

"The fact remains that technology permeates all businesses now," said Lou Gellos, a spokesman for Microsoft Corp. "All companies have that person down the hall to help with computer issues."

Amid the growing demand, the number of students entering computer sciences and computer engineering fields at major universities is dropping.

Enrollment in undergraduate degree programs in computer sciences is more than 50 percent lower than it was five years ago, the Computing Research Association says. Between 2005-06 and 2006-07, the number of new students declaring computer sciences as a major fell 43 percent, to 8,021.

"We’re definitely concerned around the fact that there’s a talent shortage," said Cindy Nicola, vice president of talent acquisition for Electronic Arts Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based maker of video games such as Madden NFL and The Sims.

In response to the problem, Nicola said the company has begun working more with colleges and universities to recruit graduates aggressively, offer internships, and help schools reshape their curricula so graduates are better able to step immediately into jobs at the business.

The company offers up to 400 hands-on internships per year, as well as perks such as fitness centers, on-campus coffee shops, dry cleaning, dental services, haircuts, massage therapists, and game rooms. As a video game maker, it also has the advantage of being in a field that is appealing to many young graduates.

Still, Nicola said the top computer-science engineers she’s interviewed have at least five offers upon graduation–and the competition for them is fierce.

Microsoft’s Gellos said that among the students earning bachelor’s degrees in Washington state, only 14 percent are graduating with the skills the company needs.

"So that means for Microsoft at its home area in Redmond, Wash., 14 percent isn’t going to cut it when it comes to the kinds of people we want to hire to work here, so we have to look in other places," he said.

Rockwell Collins Inc., a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based maker of avionics, global positioning system, and other electronic equipment for airline manufacturers, employs about 6,500 engineers and technical workers among its global work force of 20,000.

CEO Clay Jones said a shortage of those workers restrains growth and can damage customer relationships if projects are delayed.

"When you look at the relative availability of those people in the nation, we believe they’re going to continue to be in demand and ultimately in short supply in the next three to five years," Jones said.

The company is reviewing salaries and benefits and looking at the work environment, leadership development, and diversity initiatives.

Rockwell Collins also is sending mentors into classrooms to work on robotics and rocketry projects in hopes of getting students interested in future technology careers. These efforts are part of a larger statewide program coordinated by the Technology Association of Iowa.

The Des Moines-based nonprofit organization recently rolled out a pilot program called HyperStream, a career awareness project aimed at students in grades 8-12.

"We’ve created a presentation that counters the misperceptions that are out there–misperceptions that careers in technology are geeky and not cool, that this is a field that only guys go into," said Leann Jacobson, the group’s president.

Microsoft has begun working with teachers to hold annual math camps and has launched programs such as DigiGirlz High Tech Camps, designed to provide girls in the ninth to 12th grades a better understanding of technology careers. Girls listen to executive speakers, participate in technology tours and demonstrations, network, and learn with hands-on experience in workshops.

Microsoft also has lobbied state lawmakers to boost math requirements in schools and has promoted a Math Matters program to raise awareness in schools about raising the level of math understanding.

"Before this year, students [in Washington state] only needed to complete two years of math in high school," Gellos said. "The technology era has changed everything, and that’s not going to cut it for students today."

Professor Shankar Sastry, the dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, said he has seen an uptick in the number of undergraduate applications in computer engineering in the past year. However, the university is not enrolling additional students, because it does not have enough laboratory space and facilities to teach more IT students.

He advocates a public-private partnership with major IT employers to provide the funding needed for a 10-percent increase in the number of students at 10 campuses in the UC system. The California labor secretary has estimated that there will be a shortage of 25,000 technical workers in that state in the next seven years, and Sastry said such a partnership would solve about half of that problem.

"I think that if the CEOs of these major companies were to strike a partnership with the governor–and the governor has actually welcomed it–we would be able to create a fund to fuel the growth, and this would be a win-win situation," Sastry said.

Failure to provide facilities to teach more students will only contribute to the shortage of IT workers, he said.

"The students will go someplace else, and the companies will be left holding the bag," he said. "I think it’s pretty time-sensitive."


Computing Research Association

Technology Association of Iowa

DigiGirlz High Tech Camps

UC-Berkeley College of Engineering

Editor’s note: For more information about the shortage of computer science professionals and what schools are doing to address the problem, see these related stories:

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‘Threads’ wends new approach to computer science

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‘i-Schools’ expand concept of IT education

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New program helps girls get ‘IT’

AAUW: Technology doesn’t scare girls; it bores them