The once rock-steady tech job has been battered by ferocious waves lately: a dot-com bust, offshoring, outsourcing, H-1B replacements, cost-cutting, and now layoffs resulting from the global economic crisis. Weary tech veterans also lament tough working conditions, citing everything from ridiculously excessive hours to ignorant managers to zero opportunities for advancement. So it's no surprise that very few college-bound teenagers dream of toiling their lives away in a cubicle staring at a computer screen.
Yet, in the current tough U.S. job market, a tech career is actually one of the safest ones to have. Tech is still a good profession with decent pay and relatively solid job security. "The reality is there's still a very healthy job sector in information technology," says Mehran Sahami, an associate professor of computer sciences at Stanford University.
Tech's poor image, though, continues to blind young people from seeing the bright side. Tapping America's Potential, a coalition of businesses working toward doubling the number of students earning bachelor's degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM areas, reported last summer that it's already falling behind in that goal after only three years.
"If more people were aware of how strong the demand is in computing, I think there would be a healthier pipeline of students," Sahami says. But "there's been a little too much hype around offshoring and outsourcing, which has scared some people away."
The situation is becoming so dire that the National Science Foundation began shifting its focus from research to swaying high school students toward STEM. "That's an absolute fact," says Roger Norton, dean of the School of Computer Science and Mathematics at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "There truly will be a major shortage, in terms of graduating students in areas of computers and technology, to meet the needs of the companies out there."
Before the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, colleges enjoyed record enrollment in their computer science and other IT-related programs. But in the years following the bust, colleges across the nation reported that enrollments had fallen by 50 percent. Enthusiasm about a future tech career hit an all-time low about five years ago during the peak of the offshore outsourcing uproar.
Worse, this downward spiral is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. The skills shortage lies at the heart of the H-1B controversy, which in turn discourages more young people from joining the tech ranks. For example, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has argued that the United States is not graduating enough science and engineering majors to fill the future tech workforce needs, which is why he has lobbied Congress to increase the number of H-1B visas issued to fill in the gap with foreign workers.