Back in the days when mainframes ruled, there was a close ratio between IT workers and computers. Now, PCs worldwide number close to 1 billion, but the number of IT workers joining the field is dwindling fast.
"We're seeing a lack of talented IT professionals looking for new positions," says Greg Fittinghoff, vice president of business systems development at Time in New York. "We're also noticing that the pipeline of candidates from top consulting companies looking for permanent placement is drying up."
Experts say this problem will only get worse by 2010. As the demand for IT-savvy staffers continues to grow, the number of people seeking computer science degrees is in a free fall. "According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one out of every four new jobs between now and 2012 will be IT-related," says Mark Hanny, vice president of IBM's Academic Initiative outreach program. Yet according to the Computing Research Association, the percentage of college freshmen listing computer science as their probable major fell 70 percent between 2000 and 2004. The drop-off has been even more severe among women, who, although they now make up the majority of students on college campuses, account for only 28 percent of the computer science bachelor's degrees granted, down from 38 percent in 1984.
To turn this trend around, several initiatives are under way to encourage more workers to join the IT field. Some programs help students who are currently taking computer science courses complete their studies; others take the longer view, targeting K-12 students with free software, classroom speakers and age-appropriate curricula.
But Hanny says that none of the current activities is enough to completely solve the shortage in the next few years; it will take something similar to the nation's response to sputnik. "In the K-12 area, it would be so much better to see this come together as a national effort," he says. "If we want to continue to maintain our leadership, we must get more of our students excited about this as a career at a very young age."
Several factors have been cited for the drop in interest, including the threat of outsourcing, the loss of jobs after the dot-com meltdown, and a boom in disciplines such as biology attracting students who might otherwise opt for IT.
"High school guidance counselors and parents who are advising students of potential career paths are reluctant about promoting CS/IT as an attractive choice," says Wanda Dann, associate professor of computer science at Ithaca College in New York. "They are uncertain about well-paying jobs being available upon graduation."
Dann says computer science might have hit a low point on enrollments, but statistics have yet to indicate that there will be an increase by 2010. "More needs to be done," she says. "For example, the communications media could contribute by picking up coverage of the shortage and helping us to get the word out to parents and guidance counselors around the nation."
But a more fundamental issue lies in the failure to attract students at an early age. Randy Pausch, a professor in Carnegie Mellon University's computer science department and co-director of the university's Entertainment Technology Center, says a major factor is IT's image. As Pausch puts it, "The field has a well-deserved reputation for people who are socially inept introverts."
This is compounded by a high dropout rate among those who do embark upon a computer science degree.
"On average, at least half of college students majoring in CS/IT withdraw from the major, and the majority of these students withdraw during the first year," says Dann.
To counter that trend, outreach activities, particularly for girls and underrepresented minorities, have been established, as well as efforts to improve IT's image. Experts say a revamping of the way the subject is taught is also needed. Toward that end, Pausch, Dann and others have developed a new approach to teaching programming. It features educational software known as "Alice" and uses a drag-and-drop method to teach object-oriented programming; it's available as a free download at www.alice.org.
Once students learn the basics of object-oriented programming, it's easier for them to code it. A National Science Foundation study of at-risk students found that those who used Alice had a grade of B in first-level computer science, compared with a C for a control group. And 88 percent of those who started out with Alice moved on to second-level computer science, compared with only 47 percent of those who didn't use Alice.
"We're highly optimistic," says Pausch. "Reports from the field, especially from community colleges, are that the Alice approach is highly motivating for kids, and being motivated to do the work is a great reason to want to stay in a major."
But one of the biggest benefits is that it opens up the programming field to women and girls who previously wouldn't have been interested in computer science, instantly doubling the number of potential recruits. Pausch says projects like Alice will help soften IT's image and attract a wider range of students.
"The people who make video games and do [computer-generated] effects for movies already have a sort of cool image, because what they make is cool," he says. "Plus, getting more women into the field will, in and of itself, reduce the geek image."
One other major change is that IT is no longer being viewed as a strictly separate discipline. Rather, it is regarded as a method to enable other types of activities. "IT is showing up pervasively across many jobs," says IBM's Hanny. "We are getting a lot of demand across fields -- not just IT and engineering, but business schools and nursing schools who want to be able to integrate IT into their core curriculum."
So if a company is looking for IT staffers to automate its supply chain operations, for example, it can go one of two ways. The company can train someone who majored in computer science in the intricacies of supply chain management. Or it can hire a business major who understands supply chain management but has also taken some computer classes. In the second scenario, some of the coding might need to be done by a consultant, but the resulting solution might better address the company's business needs.
"It isn't the technology. It is the business model that is creating new ways for companies to differentiate themselves in the marketplace," says Hanny. "And those business models are all IT-related."