Outsourcing spurs wane in computer science

It's become routine for high-tech offshore development firms such as Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. to add new employees. Head count at the Teaneck, N.J., firm is up 10 percent from the prior quarter to 26,750 employees, Cognizant reported this week. And by the end of the year, the company expects to have more than 35,000 employees.

What's become routine as well is declining interest among U.S. college students in computer science. The Washington-based Computing Research Association (CRA) recently reported that the number of bachelor's degrees in computer science fell 17 percent in the 2004-2005 academic year from the previous year to 11,808 at Ph.D.-granting universities. Those schools represent about 30 percent of the total undergrads in the U.S. The same trend may also be affecting academic programs that combine business and IT skills training.

'It's almost like somebody flipped a switch on the undergrads,' said David Meinert, a professor who also heads a master's program in computer information systems at Missouri State University in Springfield. That program combines business and IT training.

In the fall of 2000, Missouri State had 982 students enrolled in its undergraduate information systems program and another 216 in its computer sciences program. In the fall of 2005, the enrollments had dropped sharply, to 310 and 161, respectively. Meinert sees the same problem at other schools and says it has consequences for employers: 'a shortage of highly qualified entry-level IT professionals.'

Blame for the decline is based on several things: the collapse of the dot-com bubble, fears about offshore outsourcing and slack overall IT job growth.

The American Electronics Association, a Washington-based industry group, said last month that IT employment in the high-tech sector was at 5.6 million in 2005, a 1 percent increase from the previous year and the first time since 2001 the number of IT jobs increased. (In 2001, the group counted 6.5 million high-tech jobs.) With employment in the telecommunications sector weighing down the overall IT job picture -- the number of telecom jobs dropped by 42,000 between 2004 and 2005 -- the overall IT employment picture may be better than it seems. The number of software jobs increased by 32,000 over the same period. And the U.S.Bureau of Labor Statistics, which counted 460,000 computer software engineers in 2004, is forecasting employment in that area to increase to 682,000 by 2014, a 48 percent jump.