US tertiary IT courses face falling rolls

Enrolments in computing courses in the US are declining

There definitely seems to be declining interest among American tertiary students in computer science. The Washington-based Computing Research Association (CRA) recently reported that the number of bachelor’s degrees in computer science fell 17% in the 2004-2005 academic year at PhD-granting universities. That represents about 30% of the total undergraduates in the US. The same trend may also be affecting academic programmes that combine business and IT skills training.

“It’s almost like somebody flipped a switch on the undergraduates,” says David Meinert, a professor who also heads a master’s programme in computer information systems at Missouri State University. That programme combines business and IT training.

Between 2000 and 2005, enrolments in the programme dropped sharply, to 310 and 161. Meinert sees the same problem at other schools and says it has consequences for employers, specifically “a shortage of highly qualified entry-level IT professionals”.

Blame for the decline is based on several things: the collapse of the dot-com bubble, fears about offshore outsourcing and slack overall IT job growth.

Not everyone sees declining enrolments in some core IT programmes as a problem. David Foote, of Foote Partners, a management consultancy and IT workforce research firm, says companies are hiring people from all kinds of backgrounds, even liberal arts, and giving them the IT training they need on the job. “The world is asking for a completely different type of professional,” he says.

But companies still need IT skills, and one vendor that has been trying to get more students involved in mainframe work is IBM. The experience of Jason Arnold illustrates how companies are recruiting.

Arnold graduated with a degree in computer science and mathematics from Northern Illinois State University in December and is now working on a graduate degree in the same field at DePaul University in Chicago. Arnold learned how to program in BASIC when he was ten. At Northern Illinois, he started studying computer science and took an assembly language course that involved working on a mainframe.

Although DePaul didn’t provide mainframe training, Arnold says that in his final semester at Northern Illinois, he saw a posting for an IBM mainframe contest and signed up for it. The contest involved a series of increasingly difficult steps, similar to what a systems programmer might encounter.

He finished third out of the 700 who participated.

Arnold and other top scorers travelled out to IBM’s mainframe facility in New York state, where IBM lined up interviews with some of its customers. He received two internship offers and a job offer with IBM to provide mainframe support, which he took. He starts his training in July.

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