It seems like a no-brainer. Companies are desperate for computer programmers, and outside of engineering, no major presents the potential for higher earnings straight out of college than computer science. So why aren’t more students gravitating to computer and information technology programs?
The number of graduates obtaining at least an associate’s degree in computer and information sciences plummeted 11% from 2003 to 2012, and the share of female IT degrees has declined even more. Specifically in computer science over the last decade, completions at all levels peaked in 2004 at just over 19,000 and dropped to 14,600 by 2007.
Only in the last several years have computer science degrees started to nudge upward. But judging by the voracious demand for software and web developers – in addition to other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields – educational output isn’t keeping up.
Part of the problem is that not enough high school students think about pursuing a career in computer science. And for those that do, many high schools only offer computer science courses as electives, if that (though that’s changing at Chicago Public Schools and other places).
Still, computer science and other STEM fields suffer from an awareness and perception problem. Some students think computer programming is too difficult. Some think it’s too geeky. And others don’t know about the scores of high-paying jobs available in computer-related fields.
The lack of awareness among students – and their parents – about IT careers is becoming increasingly apparent to employers and educators. Tata Consultancy Services, a leading global IT services and consulting company, is just one of many major firms that has found it challenging to find the tech talent it needs in North America. In 2008, TCS developed a program called “goIT” in Cincinnati to make students aware of the vibrant careers available in STEM.
The program has been such a hit that TCS has expanded it to Atlanta, Chicago, San Antonio, Toronto, and a handful of other cities.
“We began working with the schools, the board of education, and the universities in Cincinnati,” said Surya (Sury) Kant, president of Tata’s North American, UK, and European operations. “That program has become quite successful. Not only have the students benefited from the program, but the educators, the state administrators, and more importantly the parents have seen the advantages of it.”
According to TCS, only 17 percent of high school graduates are proficient and interested in pursuing STEM careers. It wants to raise that to 25 percent through programs like goIT.
One way to do that is to help parents see the high-paying jobs available to their children in IT and related fields.
“I believe the earlier you begin to work with these students, the better it is,” Kant said. “Once the students have become enthused, we like to get the parents involved as well to then encourage their kids to take up these courses. That works wonders because for us as parents, it’s also important (to) define the areas where the growth is – not only for the community or the country, but also overall where the jobs are.
“This is an area where you have a lot of jobs being created, but not so many candidates available to fill the jobs.”
STEM jobs receive a lot of attention for a reason. They’re mostly high-skill, high-paying fields that are key sources of innovation and economic growth. Yet since the recession, and even before, the technology segment of the STEM equation has lapped all others in terms of new jobs. And inside the tech sector — the “T” in STEM — computer-related jobs have been the real stalwarts.
More than 400,000 jobs have been created since 2010 in core STEM fields. Two-thirds of those have been in computer occupations. Among software developers alone, the U.S. has gained more than 100,000 estimated jobs from 2010 to 2013, per EMSI.
These numbers suggest that employers are able to fill at least some of their open IT positions. Meanwhile, wages for programmers and software developers haven’t increased as you might expect given a worker shortage.
Nonetheless, the decrease in computer-related degrees is troubling to Tata, even with more programmers learning to code on their own and more employers willing to invest in onsite training.
“I would say the attainment of a certain level of education is important for us,” Kant said. “A degree indicates a candidate’s seriousness regarding his or her career.”
In addition to the goIT program, TCS has hosted an executive roundtable on computer science with STEMconnector and taken part in other employer-led initiatives. With these and other programs, the goal is the same – to increase the supply of computer and tech-related graduates.
It’s an investment that makes sense for TCS and other companies who depend on STEM workers.
“We believe that STEM courses are very important,” Kant said. “The whole STEM field is very important for the growth and well-being of the community and society, and that it is our responsibility to contribute to it.”
This article appeared on EMSI’s contributor site for Forbes.