IT graduate numbers fall to 1990s levels

It's not a crisis but a return to days, says Frank Hayes

I can see the future. You can too. Just look at the numbers released this month by the US Computing Research Association, which does an annual survey of the number of students studying and graduating in Computer Science.

The number of newly-declared CS majors peaked in 2000, just before the dot-com bust. Undergraduate CS enrollments peaked in 2002. CS bachelor's degrees peaked in 2004. Print out those three graphs and hold them up to the light, and they line up almost perfectly.

Four years after the dot-com bust in 2000, four-year CS degrees fell off a cliff. Gee, who'd have guessed that would happen?

Based on the number of first year CS majors, we know that the number of CS graduates will drop for one more year, then flatten out after the class of 2009 to roughly the levels before the dot-com boom and bust.

So forget the gloom-and-doom headlines about plummeting interest in IT. No, kids haven't abandoned careers with us en masse. We've merely lost the huge influx of students who got dollar signs in their eyes when the internet craze hit. In another year or so, we'll be back to normal — or, pre-dot-com normal.

But now that you can see the future, what are you going to do about it?

After all, it's a different IT world now than in the era. Today, IT permeates business in ways we could barely imagine back when Windows 3.1 was hot stuff. Our challenges range from e-commerce, packaged applications and software-as-a-service, to security, training and integration for users who think they can do it all themselves.

We need more IT people with stronger and sharper IT skills than ever before. An IT worker pool at pre-dot-com levels won't be enough.

Then again, the skills we need aren't necessarily the ones that come attached to a CS degree.

We've replaced big legacy mainframe apps with ERP systems. We've got web applications, mobile applications, customer-facing applications. Pre-dot-com anything won't cut it.

Yes, we'll need some people who can develop complex database schemas and architect well-engineered applications. But we'll need a lot more who can whip out mashups and glue code, chase after security threats and cross-network glitches, and handle any harebrained ideas users have for applying the newest gadgets to their jobs.

Now that you know we'll have a stable supply of well-schooled CS grads for the next few years, it's time to start thinking about how many you'll need in the next few years. They can be part of the plan for your staffing mix, along with outsourcing, power users and homegrown talent.

There are enough surprises in IT. This time, you can see the future. Take advantage of it.

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