The Rarest Breed: CS Graduates (Part 1)

We’re a nation of 300 million, and on a daily basis, a majority of that 300 million spend a huge amount of time thinking about the economy. Of course, when I say “the economy,” I mean jobs and unemployment. Whether they’re climbing the corporate ladder, working for the weekend, or pursuing their passion, most adult Americans count having a job or some other means to sustain yourself as a priority.  The growth in our education industry is proof-positive that Americans understand the value of education.

And rightly so.  Unemployment is a problem not just because of lost income – it also can erode job skills and lead to a cycle where the person unemployed actually becomes less employable the longer they are out of work.  That, of course, makes it still harder to find a job.

For that matter, the ranks of the employed are in a funny spot – while corporate profits are soaring, those profits often come from productivity gains derived by cutting employment, not increasing it. And while U.S. productivity and corporate profits soar, real wages do not. In effect, as a society we’re paying more to work than we ever have.

A potential way out of that cycle (albeit a risky one) is entrepreneurship – as we know, entrepreneurs who create winning innovations often make many, many times what they could have earned in a “regular job.”  But entrepreneurship can be risky and an unstable lifestyle choice, and isn’t for everyone.

Who’s Got It Made? 

What path do you take otherwise?  What are the most stable, high wage jobs?  Who doesn’t worry about jobs and job security?  Given the growth in the economy, there are groups who are doing better than others (healthcare workers, for example).  If there’s one group who seems to have consistently good career prospects, though, it may be programmers, coders, and computer scientists.

But this is where the bitter irony starts – most parts of the US are actually graduating fewer Computer Science (CS) majors.  How could this be?  It’s true.  Look at Connecticut – a recent study commissioned by the Connecticut Technology Council indicates that the number of CS graduates from Connecticut institutions have dropped 34% in the last 10 years. (Note, at the same time, population in the state grew, and technology jobs nationally grew at a robust rate.)  That covers a number of years before the Great Recession.  And while the years preceding those were the exuberant ones around the first dot-com bubble, technology has become an even bigger industry and consumer of talent with the rise of Apple, Facebook, and Google. 

So if IT-related employment is a stable bright spot in the economy, why aren’t more people flooding into university CS programs?

Some would say that it’s likely that the dot-com bubble led incoming students to steer clear of “risky” computer science jobs.  Maybe.  It may also be that there’s a problem with how we educate computer scientists.  A 2010 study by California suggests that in that technology powerhouse, interest might not be the problem, but getting students (especially minorities) through the program.  (We’ll get into that in Part 2.)

The Trouble With Talent

So what?  What does it matter if your state or city isn’t a “Silicon Valley.”  It may matter more than you think, and not just because “old economy” jobs continue to shrink.

Talent is a double-edged sword for a regional economy.  A great deal of the focus on jobs comes down to the question: “Why aren’t employers hiring more?”  And that usually leads to a related question: “What can we do to form companies that will hire lots of people, and to encourage bigger companies to hire more?”  The second question is a bit like trying to figure out how to make a cow stand upright.  You can do it, but it’s costly and will only last for a short period of time.

The first question is a good one, but it misses an important point.  Jobs and talent are two sides of the same coin – you can’t talk about creating jobs in any area without knowing that you have a talent pool with the right resources to hire from.  So jobs won’t be opened where there isn’t a good talent pool and ‘available’ talent.  You wouldn’t open a tire factory in a place without roads, without a supply of competitively-priced rubber, without electricity and other raw materials, right?  Jobs work the same way – if employers don’t find talent available, they move on.

If you doubt that in our highly technology- and services-based economy that job creation is deeply tied to pools of concentrated talent, consider the research referenced in this book by Enrico Moretti.  Higher concentrations of highly educated people lead employers to pay more for talent, and lead to higher concentrations of jobs because of the multiplier effect (people in high wage jobs pay for services and products delivered by people in lower wage job categories, multiplying the effect of a single job.)

(To Be Continued in Part 2, Reverse the Curse)

Over to You

Maybe you are a student pursuing a CS degree, or an entrepreneur who’s had trouble hiring the allusive talent of a software engineer, coder, etc. Whatever the case may be, we’d like to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

About derekkoch

Derek is CEO and Founder of Independent Software. Independent Software’s mission is to “help entrepreneurs win”; the company works with early-stage ventures to build new web and mobile software products, place talent through the A100 software apprenticeship program, and access the statewide startup community through the company's online magazine, The Whiteboard. Derek and the company also partner with such organizations as UP Global, Startup America, CTNext, the Grid, and the Connecticut Technology Council, Derek works to create and advance initiatives that help entrepreneurs manage and lead successful startup ventures rooted in Connecticut. Derek holds a master's degree in Management from Northwestern University's Kellogg School. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and their two sons.

4 comments

  1. Having been first an educator of CS students, then a CS student myself (I know, the order sounds backwards), and finally a software engineer in my own right, I’d say that one large reason why we don’t have more CS students is the perception that it is hard.

    CS degrees always require quite a bit of math and programming (as well they should) as well as theory. These three things are all thought of as hard by many people and they won’t even try it. Worse are those who do technically try it, but because they know it’s hard, they think it’s okay if they fail at it, so have psyched themselves out before they began.

    CS isn’t the only science whose enrollments are suffering right now in this country, though it is the least sensical for people to be avoiding in droves. Many studies have been done as to why we have ever-decreasing numbers of science majors and it almost always comes down to the same thing: math is hard.

    Math is not hard, but that’s the impression people get and it’s frequently pounded into them by the attitudes of their elementary school teachers, many of whom find math hard. Math is also not cool; in fact, it’s often seen as better by students to be “dumb” than to “get” math. The key to this problem is to solve the “math is hard” problem. This is something that higher education has been trying to do for years with little success. It’s time to start doing something about it at the elementary school level.

    P.S. Why does Wenbin look so angry in the background image? I don’t remember him ever being angry when I worked there. :-)

  2. I recall hiring techies in my old corporate job. I could get 2 folks on H1 visas than it cost to hire someone from the US. Even though most graduated from the same schools and same programs. The immigrant workers (too much of a sci-fi geek to call them ‘aliens’) would be willing to work for nothing to stay in this country. The laws made it very easy to do with very loose justification. And I had a ton of work to get done but couldn’t increase “expenses” (and employees are “expenses.”)

    • Kevin, that’s an important perspective, because we do have so many international students coming to the US. It’s good for everyone that H1s are now subject to prevailing wage requirements, and that H1 visas are trivial to get. That prevents taking advantage of US *and* foreign workers.

  3. I’m completely fascinated by CS and even obtained a Bachelor’s in Computer Science in 2008. On my freetime I’ve been continuing my studies with all these free online classes that has cropped recently. I’ve been working as a credit analyst (a role I’ve held since prior to getting my degree) since I couldn’t seem to get my foot in anywhere. Honestly I’ve had a desire to go back and get my Masters in CS for a more competitive CS program but wonder if I’ll find myself where I am currently. I’m also torn between pursuing a MBA and landing a management role in my present employer or get a Masters in Physician Assisting just to get into the thriving Healthcare market. I’m almost 30 and really need to start working on an establishing a promising career path.

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