11 Oct IT worker shortage linked to tech enrollment drop
Madison, Wis. – Wisconsin’s information technology and computer science sectors are crucial business resources, but recruiting the talent to leverage IT has become an increasingly daunting task.
Pending baby-boomer retirements and a decline in IT enrollment could leave employers struggling to meet recruitment goals as university and technical college systems graduate fewer qualified workers than seven years ago, which marked the height of interest in information technology careers.
“We’re fighting a terrible perception in computer science that there is some notion that the IT industry, since the [dotcom] bubble burst, is in the doldrums,” said Barton Miller, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Computer Science Department and chairman of the Industrial Affiliates Program. “But from what I’ve seen, there is a very vigorous hiring market going on out there.”
This nationwide problem is compounded at the local level as many of the most talented Wisconsin-educated graduates are lured away by lucrative positions elsewhere, but efforts are underway to counter the predicament.
IT: a core economic driver
In Wisconsin, IT firms and firms heavily reliant on IT contribute $14.3 billion in revenues, 50,000 employees, and $3.8 billion in payroll annually, according to 2006 statistics from Gov. Jim Doyle.
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics lends support to that estimate. In 2005, 46,120 Wisconsinites were employed in computer and mathematical occupations with an annual average wage of $58,580.
And there is little doubt that the sector is growing.
In an average year in Wisconsin, 3,800 job openings will be created in IT-related occupations found across all industries, according to projections from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Office of Economic Advisors.
The DWD also names six computer-related jobs among Wisconsin’s 30 fastest-growing occupations of 2002 through 2012. Network systems and data communications analyst positions, which average $55,620 in salary annually, rank second on the list, with medical records and health information technicians a close third.
Software engineers and database administrators, which typically earn $65,950 and $54,730 respectively, are also among the fastest growing occupations in Wisconsin.
Even in the southeast area of the state – where fears of IT off-shoring recently hit the Village of Sturtevant – the number of computer and mathematical occupations has been projected to grow 29 percent in 10 years. According to data from the Racine County Workforce Development Center, the region will see approximately 480 IT jobs created between 2002 and 2012.
Diminished IT workforce
Yet as demand for IT workers increases, the supply has declined.
Jim Rice, president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of Wisconsin, told executives in July that an IT labor shortage could be developing in the state. In recent years, he said, the number of IT workers employed in Wisconsin has fallen flat even though wages have increased.
Rice suggested that many qualified job candidates accept positions elsewhere based on a perception of cultural and economic vitality in other regions.
Even with decent rates of pay here, higher salaries elsewhere are another factor. “We’re not paying as highly as other areas of the country in some key [technology] areas,” Rice stated.
Madison computer sciences
The UW-Madison Department of Computer Sciences has experienced a dramatic reduction in undergraduate enrollment during the past several years, concurrent with national trends, said Gurindar Sohi, department chair.
The number of bachelors degrees granted this past year is especially low as a result of declining enrollment from two and three years ago. “Now we’re seeing the output on the other end,” Sohi said.
The computer science graduate program, which was ranked as the ninth best program in the nation in a 2007 U.S. News and World Report ranking, has also decreased in size. Today, the department is able to admit only 40 graduates as compared to six years ago, when it was able to admit 75.
The change at the graduate level is attributable to cuts in state funding rather than a loss of student interest, according to Sohi. Funding problems have led to graduate teaching assistant stipends of $11,263, among the lowest of any graduate computer science program in the country.
“Our applicant pool has grown but the number of people we can admit has gone down because we cannot guarantee teaching assistant support,” Sohi said. “We are loosing a lot of graduate students to other universities.”
To check the decline, the department is developing programs to get students interested in the field. Faculty reach out to high schools and incoming freshmen, and an emerging scholars program is changing the way introductory courses are taught. The intent is to give students more personalized attention and team-oriented learning projects to cultivate appreciation for the discipline.
“Our students are in very high demand across the nation and across the world, and we are seeing more and more companies coming to us wanting to hire our students, but we aren’t going to have the students to give them, unfortunately,” Sohi said.
“I know people are dying to hire our students,” Miller added. “We’re doing our own kids and our own industry a huge disservice by discouraging them from going into computer science and information technology careers.”
Technical college system
The 16 colleges of the Wisconsin Technical College System graduate a steady stream of IT-trained individuals, and an internal 2005 WTCS survey suggests that 87 percent of employed WTCS graduates go on to work in Wisconsin. But here again, enrollment has dropped.
Viewing WTCS as a whole, enrollment in IT programs has shown mixed results since the rise and fall of the dot-com bubble in 1997 and 2001, respectively.
Enrollment in the system-wide network specialist program increased from 348 students in 1997 to 3,038 in 2002, making it the sixth most popular of all programs offered.
However, for other computer information systems programs during the same period, enrollment declined. The number of students enrolled in the computer programmer/analyst program slid from 3,028 to 2,415, a decrease of 20 percent, and the microcomputer specialist program declined by 261 students, or 12.3 percent, between 1997 and 2002.
Although several programs have remained stable at Milwaukee Area Technical College, the number of students registered for the IT programmer/analyst program fell from 1,048 in 2001 to 241 in 2005. During the same period, IT computer support specialist registrants fell from 936 to 202.
Mohammad Dakwar, associate dean of business and information technology, attributes the drop to the cyclical nature of the industry, combined with increased competition from Milwaukee-based computer training vendors like PC Productivity, Inc., New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, Inacom Information Systems, C2 Graphics Productivity Solutions, and Effective Solutions.
“There is a decline, but it is not as bad as it may seem.” Dakwar said. “It looks like IT is coming back. Every indication shows that IT is growing. The only unfortunate part is we don’t see the students yet.”
To attract more students, Dakwar and his colleagues are developing virtual servers to enhance training, new simulation and gaming courses, and its repertoire of online courses.
At Madison Area Technical College, in a region where the growth of IT jobs is projected to grow 35 percent over the next 10 years, the number of graduates in IT programs peaked around 1999. Presumably this was due, in part, to the large temporary demand for programmers to fix the Y2K non-problem.
And although enrollment has since tapered off, Ken McCullough, lead IT instructor, is confident that market forces will boost enrollment. “We believe employer demand for IT graduates is increasing right now,” he said.
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