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Joel Adams Discusses the Career Outlook For CS Students

By Jack Rosenberger

July 1, 2010

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If you’re ambivalent about a career in computer science, you should read Joel Adams’ The Market For Computing Careers.

A computer science professor at Calvin College, Adams recently compiled and analyzed job data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resource Statistics, the National Center for Education Statistics, and U.S. News & World Report. The resulting report, The Market For Computing Careers, contains a wealth of positive job news for college students majoring in computer science in the U.S. Among the report’s findings:

• The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that computing will be one of the fastest-growing U.S. job markets in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for the foreseeable future. Nearly three of out of four new science or engineering jobs in the U.S. will be in computing.

• Of these new computing jobs, 27% will be in software engineering, 21% in computing networking, and 10% in systems analysis.

• The demand for software engineers, network administrators, systems analysts, and other computing-related professionals is exploding, but fewer students are choosing to study what is needed to get these jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts nearly 140,000 new job openings in computing per year through 2018, with less than 50,000 computer science graduates vying for those jobs.

• The salaries for software engineers, network administrators, and systems analysts are rising. According to U.S. News & World Report, the median salary for a software engineer ranged from $85,000-$92,000 in 2008, with the best-paid 10% of software engineers earning more than $136,000.

We interviewed Adams about The Market For Computing Careers for a news article, “U.S.’s Bright CS Job Forecast,” in the July issue of Communications of the ACM, and followed up with additional interview questions about reactions to the report, how to increase the number of computer science students, and whether words like “geek” and “nerd” should, as some have suggested, be banned.

Your report is great news for the near-term future of computer science. But this news hasn’t yet permeated throughout the education landscape. Why is that?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. BLS) data is just that—data in a spreadsheet. Unless a person takes the time to create visualizations of that data, it’s just a lot of numbers, and most of us are not very good at seeing relationships across so many numbers. That’s the power of charts and graphs—they let people more easily see the information in the numbers.

I think there is also a fair amount of skepticism out there—most academics know about Darrell Huff’s classic book How To Lie With Statistics—so we tend to be cautious when we see charts based on data, in case the presentation might be biased somehow. That caution tends to slow the spread of information.

What most surprised you about the report’s conclusions?
I think the most surprising thing was that the U.S. BLS is projecting more than four times as many new jobs in computing than in all the traditional (non-software) engineering areas combined. A second surprise was BLS’s projection of more than twice as many new computing jobs per year than there are computing graduates at present. The third surprise was that computing is the only STEM discipline where the demand for graduations outstrips the supply.

Calvin College is in Michigan, which has one of the higher unemployment rates of any state, but we are already seeing the effects of this imbalance. This past semester, we received an average of three requests per week from local businesses seeking students with significant computing skills. We don't have nearly enough students to meet such demand.

It's frustrating to us, because Calvin offers an ABET-accredited bachelor of computer science program and an ABET-accredited bachelor of engineering program. Our engineering students are having trouble finding internships, while our computer science students can't begin to meet the demand. But our engineering program had 140 freshmen last year, while our computer science program had less than a dozen—it’s completely out of sync with the market.

I prepared this report back in January, after the new BLS projections came out, to try to spread the word to parents and guidance counselors. We also mailed a one-page flier with this information to 300 guidance counselors of high schools that frequently send students to Calvin.

What type of responses you have received?
The responses I've received have varied between positive and skeptical. But the report is just a visualization of the data from the BLS, NSF, NCES, and U.S. News & World Report sites. If people express skepticism, I steer them to the original sites, which are listed on the charts.

My dean, Uko Zylstra, was concerned about our low enrollments in computer science, and was considering not letting us hire a replacement for a retiring faculty member. But he checked out the raw BLS data and it was quite an eye opener for him. He thinks market forces should eventually cause the supply of computer science students to rise to meet the demand, so he approved that replacement-hire in anticipation of enrollment increases.

I presented a preliminary version of these charts to my U.S. Representative, Vern Ehlers (R, MI), just over a year ago, which brought the problem to his attention. He immediately recognized its negative strategic implications for our country. That led him to draft and co-sponsor House Resolution 558, which designated the week of Grace Hopper's birthday as national Computer Science Education Week, and which the House approved by a vote of 405-0 last October. That was probably the most positive response.

We also give copies of these charts to prospective students who visit us, and those copies have helped reassure them and their parents that they will have job opportunities if they graduate with a degree in computer science or information systems.

What are the typical responses you receive from prospective students after they see your report?
Most of the responses I’ve had have been from parents, and most of them are surprised, to the effect of, “So there are jobs in computing? I thought they were all going overseas!” Our media’s coverage of the growing software industry in India has many parents thinking that all the computing jobs have gone there.

I find it helpful to explain to parents the difference between out-sourcing and off-shoring: a company that outsources its computing needs may well do so to a U.S. company. I don’t think of Michigan as a hi-tech hub, yet we have at least three of these companies here in Grand Rapids, and they regularly hire our grads. As far as I can tell, only a small fraction of the outsourced work is going to non-U.S. companies (i.e., being off-shored). The students’ parents find this very reassuring.

What do you think computer science institutions and people should do to increase the supply of undergrads?
I think computer science has an image problem with several aspects. One aspect is the "nerd/geek" stereotype. Another aspect is the misperception that all of the jobs are being off-shored. Another aspect is the misperception that computing is boring, because middle and high school students’ "computing" courses consist of learning about Word, Excel, etc. With that as their point of reference, it's no wonder they think computing is boring!

I wish the ACM would undertake a computing "image makeover" project a major project like the Machine That Changed the World TV series back in the early 1990s. We need a way to recapture the interest of today's young people in computing, and show them how interesting, engaging, and fulfilling it can be. I think it would take an organization like the ACM to accomplish this; the problem is too big for smaller institutions to tackle.

If we envision undergraduate education as a pipeline, the first problem is to get students interested enough in computing to enter the pipeline. (A secondary problem is retention: to keep students from leaking out of the pipeline before they graduate.) Here at Calvin, we've been trying a number of approaches:

—We've been raising money for scholarships for students who are interested in studying computing.

—We've made our computer science and information systems’ minor programs more flexible, and held informational meetings over pizza for students from other disciplines to inform them of how a minor in computer science or information systems can be beneficial for them in their other discipline.

—We've been offering summer computing camps using Alice and/or Scratch to introduce middle and high school students to the ideas of programming in a fun, engaging way.

—This summer, I'm teaching a graduate workshop for middle and high school teachers on using Alice and Scratch in their classes to unleash their students' creative juices. This workshop is not limited to computing teachers/classes, and I am hoping that teachers from a variety of subject areas will attend it. Imagine the possibilities if middle and high school teachers started using Alice or Scratch to engage their students in Art, English, Foreign Language, History, Math, Music, Science ...

—To make our CS1 course more appealing to today's visual students, we are using Processing (http://processing.org) to introduce the ideas of programming in the first half of the semester. Once they have seen those ideas in a visually engaging way, we switch to pure Java in the second half of the course and revisit those same concepts in deeper detail--the "spiral" pedagogical approach. We began trying this approach in Fall 2009, and we are currently evaluating its effectiveness.

There are many more things that can be done on a local level, but these are some of the things we have been trying here at Calvin.

What are things that should be done at the local level?
Aside from contacting your state government representatives to make them aware of the situation and try to get them involved …

I know people at Carnegie Mellon University and other places have had some success working with Girl Scouts. I’ve tried contacting our local Girl Scout leadership, but have received no responses to my initiatives.

I’ve also tried to go to a local high school to give a talk on computing in a math or science class. A few years ago, one of my students and I built Microwulf, a personal, portable, high-performance Beowulf cluster. I’ve tried to get local high schools to let me bring it to their classrooms and give a talk about computing, but have not yet gotten permission to do so. I think the problem is that some high schools are so fixated on meeting the No Child Left Behind requirements, they are resistant to anything that might be seen as a distraction or that would keep them from achieving that goal.

Until such a time as the high schools begin teaching computer science, I think one of the most promising ideas is an after-school computing club. That kind of outreach can provide sustained contact with young people who are interested in computing, and let them make friends with others who share their passion (and see that they are not alone). That sort of sustained contact takes time and energy, but I think it is likely to be the most successful way to encourage young people to pursue computing. My summer camps have produced some successes, but when you have contact with kids just once a year, you lose a lot of kids from year to year. I think a more sustained and regular (say, monthly) club outreach would likely produce a higher yield.

Speaking of the “nerd/geek” stereotype, some people, such as David Anderegg, a professor of psychology at Bennington College , have suggested that the terms “geek” and “nerd” should be banned. What’s your reaction?
I agree that the stereotypes are damaging, but I disagree that the terms should be banned. I believe in responsible free speech, and generally dislike strategies to ban pejorative terms and introduce “politically correct” (PC) replacements. The PC replacements eventually become pejorative, and the cycle starts over.

Back in my college days, I was talking to a girl who was a really bright history major, and she said, “You know, it’s weird, but you and [a friend] are both computer science guys, and you are two of the most interesting people I know.” Now maybe she was just flirting, but I know lots of interesting computer scientists; I think the discipline attracts fun, interesting people. But our image in the media is pretty much the exact opposite.

So I think a better strategy is to admit that there are some nerdy/geeky computer scientists, but not let them be the standard bearers for our discipline. We need to find a way to leverage the power of mass media to create a more positive association for the term “computer scientist” in the average person’s mind.

If you think about what Apple was trying to do with those “I’m a Mac; I’m a PC” commercials, they were seeking to differentiate themselves, their products, and the people who use their products from the nerds. I know next to nothing about marketing and public relations, but I firmly believe that we need a similar effort to differentiate the world-changing impact of computer science from the nerd-in-the-cubicle stereotype. I wish we had a charismatic spokesperson who could do for us what Brian Greene did for physics and string theory. I’m sure she’s out there somewhere!

Do you consider yourself optimistic or pessimistic about the future of computer science in the U.S.? Why?
I’m generally optimistic. Challenges like this can usually be seen as opportunities, if viewed from the correct angle. Though, I must admit, I’m still trying to find the right angle on this problem. Changing a cultural misperception is a daunting problem.

One reason to be optimistic is that such cultural change has happened before: the Internet boom of the late 1990s made computer science the thing to get into if you wanted to be involved. The dot-com bust, coupled with the media’s confusion of outsourcing with off-shoring, was a one, two punch that negatively changed our culture’s perception of computing.

I think the current shift from cell phone to smartphone has the potential to swing the pendulum back. Google has an innovative project called App Inventor (sites.google.com/site/appinventor/) that lets people create multimedia apps for Android phones without having to learn the syntax of a traditional programming language. I think that if introductory computing courses were re-oriented around smartphone app development, that would have enormous potential to attract students to computing. App Inventor makes this feasible, and think of the outpouring of creativity it could unleash!

Perhaps the opportunity here is to reinvent the way introductory computing is taught. Instead of throwing novice students into the deep end with industrial-strength languages like Java or C++, schools are trying lots of different approaches to make introductory computing more engaging.

Besides App Inventor, some of the approaches include Carnegie Mellon’s Alice (alice.org), Michael Kölling’s Greenfoot (www.greenfoot.org), Ira Greenberg’s Processing (processing.org), Mark Guzdial and Barb Ericson’s media computation using Python (www.mediacomputation.org), MIT’s Scratch (scratch.mit.edu), various approaches using robots, and doubtless others. Many middle schools are already introducing students to computing using Alice and/or Scratch, presumably because they are not under the pressure of No Child Left Behind. We need this to become the norm, and for high schools to build on this foundation.

Another reason to be optimistic is that back in March 2010, the National Governor’s Association released a public draft of K-12 standards as part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Appendix A to the Mathematics portion of this draft included “Computer Science” as a high school elective. If that survives to the final draft, and if the Common Core State Standards Initiative works with the ACM’s Computer Science Teachers Association to form the content for that Computer Science course, that could greatly improve high school students’ perceptions of computer science.

Yet another is the supply-demand imbalance we’re already observing for computer science graduates. I don’t think the media can ignore this imbalance forever. Given our economic situation, I’m optimistic that sooner or later, the media will begin publicizing the opportunities that are available for people with current computing skills; and when people hear about those opportunities, they will start moving to fill the void and take advantage of those opportunities. Our country’s future depends on it!

Jack Rosenberger is senior editor, news, for Communciations.


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