Is computer science a dead end in the workforce?

As tools grow more advanced and more coding moves offshore, the need for advanced development expertise is on the decline

In the 1967 film "The Graduate," Dustin Hoffman's character is offered a single word of advice for a guaranteed future career: plastics. Had the film been set in the early 1990s, the word may well have been "programming." Even long after the dotcom bubble burst, companies such as Google are actively seeking recruits with advanced computer science degrees. The future is bright for programmers -- or so we're told. And yet, some analysts now suggest the picture is not as rosy for recent computer science grads as some would have us believe.

According to the latest data from the U.K.'s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), computer science graduates in the United Kingdom now have the hardest time finding work of graduates in any subject, with an unemployment rate of 17 percent. It should come as no surprise that legal and medical students fare significantly better -- the latter having a jobless rate of practically nil -- but the HESA data suggests that new students might be better off pursuing foreign languages, marketing, or even creative arts, rather than computer science.

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While the situation in the United States may not be so dire, in truth few companies share Google's zeal for academic credentials when hiring new developers. Many are willing to accept self-taught programmers, particularly if they have other skills relevant to the business. Some have implemented in-house training programs to allow employees from other disciplines to transition into software development roles. And as development tools themselves become more sophisticated and accessible, even workers with little formal knowledge of programming are trying their hands at creating applications. All are ominous signs that demand for computer science education in the job market may be on the wane.

I should have been an English major
To be sure, an advanced degree in computer science from a prestigious university such as Cal Tech, Carnegie-Mellon, or Stanford is still a valuable asset for any job-seeker. Companies such as IBM, Google, and Microsoft, which compete on the highest levels of the computing industry, rely on doctoral graduates for the groundbreaking R&D that forms the basis of their cutting-edge products.

Smaller companies with less ambitious goals, on the other hand, may have little need for such specialized expertise, particularly if they aren't in the business of selling software. For such companies, even a four-year degree in computer science may be only a partial qualification. With offshore outsourcing now a mature market, a growing number of businesses see little benefit in retaining entry-level coders at home, preferring to hand off rote coding and algorithm implementation to partners in China, India, Russia, or elsewhere.

Surprisingly, however, even in countries where educated labor is cheap and nuts-and-bolts coding is the norm, a computer science degree is no longer a guaranteed meal ticket. According to Sridhar Vembu, CEO of India-based Web software vendor Zoho, "We noticed that there was little or no correlation between academic performance, as measured by grades and the type of college a person attended, and their real on-the-job performance."

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