Layoffs scare students away from IT

Enrollment in university computer science programs is much lower than it was five years ago, and a Canadian industry expert blames the mainstream media.

New data from the Computing Research Association (CRA), which follows year-after-year enrollment and graduate trends at 170 PhD-granting institutions, shows the decline in enrollment may have stopped.

But this leveling is happening only after the number of bachelor degree graduates has, apparently, hit a trough. In the 2006-07 academic year, only 8,021 students graduated with computer science degrees from these schools – the lowest number of graduates this decade. By contrast, in 2003-04 – the high point of this decade – 14,185 students were awarded bachelors degrees in computer science, according to CRA data.

In Canada, the situation doesn’t appear to be much better.

“Our numbers are just as dire, if not worse,” Paul Swinwood, president of Ottawa-based Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), said. “What we’re seeing is enrollment dropping dramatically year after year, and in fact, we have some Canadian institutions that have room for 300 or 400 students for their first year intake.”

“It turns out less than 10 per cent of those numbers actually enroll, so expect next year and beyond to offer even smaller graduates.”

Earlier this year, the ICTC published its own report on enrollment numbers among Canadian universities. The study looked at undergraduate, graduate, masters and PhD students at close to 40 universities across the country. It found that declining enrollment rates commenced in about 2002 among Canadian institutions, resulting in enrollments numbers at 36 per cent to 64 per cent of their peak values.

“Everybody is at fault for this trend, from the provinces down to the education system,” Dalhousie computer science professor Jacob Slonim, who also served as a lead on the ICTC report, said. “Education in this country ignores computer science in high school, so students come in with virtually no understand of computing besides what they see with video games.” Swinwood agreed, pointing the finger at the lack of positive coverage for the IT industry in the mainstream media.

“Every time Nortel lays off employees, it makes major headlines,” Swinwood said. “But when CGI says it’s looking for 2,500 new people, we never hear about it. The fact that I’m forecasting the need for 80,000 new IT people by 2010 hasn’t made headlines either.”

And while it doesn’t appear that any easy solution is in sight, Swinwood said the Canadian IT industry could start to alleviate the problem by making a more concerted effort to reach out to high school students and career councillors.

“I’d like to see each IT employee adopt a high school to give the students and teacher a good resource to information about IT and the industry,” Swinwood said.

In the U.S., the numbers are increasing. In the fall of 2006, new computer science enrollments were at 7,840, and the CRA says new enrollments are now at 7,915 for the fall of 2007. The organization measures the numbers of students who have recently declared computer science as their major. “It’s too early to say if it’s going to be a turnaround,” said Jay Vegso, a CRA staff member who prepared the analysis and developed charts showing the trends, but he says the enrollment data over the last three years is showing a leveling off.

Swinwood says the Canadian industry could make computer science more popular by enhancing the “cool factor” of working in IT. Everybody wants to be a CSI forensic investigator these days because its popularity on television, he said, but nobody thinks about the IT development that allows the people on that show to do their jobs.

“Maybe those forensic investigators need to go back to the office one show and say, ‘Hey Charlie the IT guy, I need you to do this, this and this,’” Swinwood joked. “And then Charlie can become the hero for creating the IT program that allows the team to solve the case.”

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