After tech industry hiring practices left students reluctant to go into software engineering, the industry wants to make up.
Technology, sports and entertainment luminaries have come together to participate in a video urging more young people to learn computer programming.
The video, published on Tuesday by computer education non-profit Code.org, features exhortations to explore programming from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and the Miami Heat's Chris Bosh, to name a few.
Beyond the video, Code.org has published 60 statements of support from well-known business leaders like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
In a statement, former U.S. President Bill Clinton said, "At a time when people are saying 'I want a good job -- I got out of college and I couldn't find one,' every single year in America there is a standing demand for 120,000 people who are training in computer science."
The message is that programming matters in a wide variety of industries and deserves more interest from students and more resources from educators. But the rationale for the message is more interesting: According to Code.org, there's a programmer drought in the U.S.
Citing statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Science Foundation, the College Board and the Association for Computing Machinery, Code.org claims there will be 1.4 million programming-related jobs by 2020 and only 400,000 computer science students to fill those positions.
However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook doesn't describe the situation as a shortage. In fact, it suggests that a lucrative career in programming is made less likely by IT outsourcing. "Employment of computer programmers is expected to increase 12% from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations," the website states. "Since computer programming can be done from anywhere in the world, companies often hire programmers in countries that have lower wages."
The thing is, this drought has lasted for years. Bill Gates said as much back in 2005 but the tech industry hasn't collapsed. Beyond outsourcing, now less in vogue than it was a few years ago, companies have tried to deal with the supposed lack of programmers by pushing for a greater number of H1-B visas, which allow foreign IT experts to come work in the U.S.
Some, like University of California Davis computer science professor Norman Matloff, have argued that the shortage is a myth. "No study, other than those sponsored by the industry, has ever shown a shortage," he wrote. He insists that "...employers use the H-1B program to avoid hiring older Americans." He defines "older" as "over 35."
Murray Jennex, an associate professor of in the department of information and decision systems at San Diego State University, contends there's less to this shortage than has been suggested. "I do believe it's a manufactured shortage," he said in a phone interview. "After 2005-2006, our enrollment dropped. The reason was all those programming jobs were outsourced. ...The bottom line was it was hard to tell a student to study programming when there wasn't a career path."
Management treated software engineering as a commodity skill, and U.S. students have been reluctant to participate in a commodity market, Jennex said.
In other words, one could characterize the situation as a programmer drought or, if you're a programmer, as a seller's market that companies brought on themselves. Either way, this isn't the kind of market that appeals to employers. It's one thing to pay millions in executive compensation, but it's something else entirely when $100,000 and workplace perks can't keep engineering talent from considering better offers elsewhere. Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, Intuit and Pixar tried to get around this problem with agreements not to poach each other's employees, but the Department of Justice put a stop to that.
It's perhaps worth noting that the supporters of Code.org include plenty of Silicon Valley executives and investors but no rank-and-file programmers.
According to InformationWeek's 2012 IT Salary Survey, IT staff made an average of $85,000 per year in base salary ($90,000 with bonuses) and IT managers made an average of $108,000 base salary ($116,000 with bonuses). This represents a 0.8% increase for IT staff and 1.6% for IT management since 2010.
Even so, respondents have become more optimistic about IT as a career path. Back in 2004, following the dot-com bust, only 15% of respondents considered an IT career path to be as promising as they did five years earlier. By 2010, 28% found the IT career path as promising as five years prior. And in 2012, 38% said as much, indicating at least that optimism about IT opportunities is growing.
Jennex agrees with Code.org's stand that everyone should learn to program because it's a valuable skill with cross-disciplinary applications. But he expects a correction in the market for software engineers, because there are only so many social websites and apps that can be made before the market reaches saturation. "I do think we'll see a bust cycle," he said, adding, "I think the next big cycle will be in security programming."
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