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Tech jobs rise, but graduates are on decline: Universities working hard to attract students into IT, computer sciences

July 14, 2008

At a time when central Indiana is adding high-tech jobs faster than any other area in the Midwest, the overall health of the industry could be threatened by a lack of interest from college students.

The Washington, D.C.-based Computing Research Association's annual survey of universities with doctorate-granting programs found an 18-percent drop this year in students completing bachelor's degrees in professional information technology fields. The latest statistics are particularly alarming given they continue a trend seen for several years.

Enrollment in undergraduate degree programs in computer sciences is roughly 50 percent lower than its peak in 2001, the group said. This year's decline is even more dramatic than in 2003, when the number of new students declaring computer sciences as a major fell 43 percent.

CRA, a group devoted to promotion of research in computing, surveyed 170 member institutions. Almost all universities that grant doctorates in computer science belong to the CRA, are research-oriented institutions and typically among the largest universities.

As a professor and assistant department head of computer and information technology at Purdue University, Alka Harriger has witnessed the falloff of tech students firsthand.

To help combat the shortage, the university conducts an array of events to get pre-college students interested in technology fields.

In mid-July, Purdue is hosting a group of teachers, coun- selors and high school students for a program aimed at generating more interest in computer-related fields among teen-agers, especially girls. Organizers hope to dispel misconceptions about the tech profession.

"When people think of what an IT person does, a common stereotype might be a male hacker in a closet-sized room ... doing things that he probably shouldn't be doing," she said.

Demand is up

The trend comes at a time when demand is increasing and scores of baby boomers are retiring from technical jobs. 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 counted, total IT job openings in the 10-year period are estimated at 1.6 million.

The Indianapolis region is contributing to the growth in a big way. In its annual "Cybercities" study released in late June, the Washington, D.C.-based AeA (formerly the American Electronics Association) said central Indiana added 2,200 jobs from 2001 to 2006, bringing the sector's total to 28,500 jobs. The growth rate of 8.6 percent is the fourth fastest in the nation.

Jim Jay, president and CEO of Techpoint, an advocacy organization for Indiana's technology sector, attributed the positive news to the growth occurring at local high-tech companies such as Aprimo Inc., Compendium Blogware, ExactTarget Inc. and Ontario Systems.

"It's a very exciting indicator for what we believed to be true for some period of time," Jay said of the AeA study.

Despite the job growth, local tech companies still struggle to fill key positions, he said. The threat of a worker shortage is serious enough to prompt Techpoint to develop programs addressing the issue that should be unveiled later this year.

Why the lack of interest?

IT veterans seem to be torn on the reasons for the declining number of tech students and the impact it could have on the region.

Echoing Harriger's sentiments, Jay guessed the lack of interest emanating from the college ranks could be based more on perception than reality. But he thinks graduates may be confusing IT jobs with call-center operations and steering clear of the sector for fear they could be victims of outsourcing.

Steve Jones, director of Ball State University's graduate program at its Center for Information and Communications Sciences, concurred. His challenge is recruiting students to the 11-month grad program while dispelling any fears about offshoring.

BSU conducted a study similar to the Computing Research Association's annual survey that reached the same conclusions.

"What's frustrating is that I have had an increase in companies looking for [computer-related] skill sets," Jones said.

Compendium Blogware co-founder Chris Baggott admitted the quest to find top talent is becoming more competitive, due mainly to the region's burgeoning IT sector. The software firm that helps companies create, manage and search-optimize blogs hired a software developer early this month, bringing its total to four.

But as more software is installed via the Web rather than in-house, Baggott thinks pressure will ease.

"Yes, it's getting more competitive," he said, "but I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing because demand for IT people is decreasing."

Steve Mattei, IT staffing manager and an owner of locally based Pinnacle Partners, has been placing tech professionals the past 18 years. Although interest in IT jobs remains strong in central Indiana, he recognizes the industry's struggle to attract youngsters.

Recent graduates who entered college four to six years ago likely were frightened by the bursting of the dot.combubble, Mattei said.

"If you were in the business back then, oh my goodness-it's what's going on with the mortgage business today," he said.

Hooking them earlier

At any rate, Jay said, internships go a long way in helping expose students to the opportunities and wages that typically pay two to three times the average state salary. Indeed, the average tech worker earned $63,900 in 2006, according to AeA, or 54 percent more than the average employee in the private sector.

Meanwhile, the summer program at Purdue involves 13 school guidance counselors, 24 teachers and 76 high school students, mostly from Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Dubbed Surprising Possibilities Imagined and Realized Through Information Technology, or SPIRIT, it's funded by a $1.26 million, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

Events during the workshop include a session led by Tim Wedge, a computer crime specialist at the National White Collar Crime Center on loan to Purdue, who will address technology's impact on law enforcement. An employee of Microsoft Corp. will lead a discussion on robotics and Xbox software development, and a panel of recent computing graduates will share their experiences as well.

Teachers will be on campus July 7-18, a week longer than students and counselors, and are expected to use what they have learned to enhance instruction in their classrooms.
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