Follow Your interests

Information Builders founder warns against choosing a profession just because it's trendy
Gerry Cohen's mother told him to go to engineering school. It was the 1950's and that was the thing to do.

"President Eisenhower talked about an engineering gap, that we don't have enough engineers, and our country is falling behind," Cohen says. "Every mother said 'you have to go to engineering school. If you're an engineer you'll have a job.' " So, like many others who listened to their mothers, Cohen got a degree in engineering, graduating from City College of New York in the late 1950s. A decade later, he recalls, many engineers were unemployed because the schools had produced a surplus.

Cohen went on to found Information Builders, a software company of which he is now president, and he uses his out-of-college experience to shed light on today's job market for technology workers. A few years ago, universities were luring students saying computer-science graduates were earning $48,000 their first year out of college. Today, starting salaries are in the mid-$30,000s. "Everyone was building up budgets for computer-sciences schools, but that was a mistake," Cohen says. "Fashions in what colleges are graduating are probably lagging what the real world needs. [People shouldn't] choose a profession that looks attractive because everyone is getting into it."

So now the industry is in a correction phase, and many IT grads are unemployed. Programmers are being particularly hurt by the growing trend in offshore outsourcing that is moving once high-paying jobs, like Java programming, to other countries. Those jobs probably won't come back. Corporate budget cuts also are ravaging the consulting industry. But that doesn't mean that all IT jobs are commodities, says Cohen. Networking efforts still need to be done domestically, for instance. And maintaining technology is keeping more people employed than building new technologies.

However, Cohen says there could be consequences from the offshore movement that mirror globalization trends in other industries. First, programmers could unionize as other skilled workforces have in the past, though he's doubtful that will happen. Congress could ask for protection in the form of tariffs, much like it does for the steel industry. There also could be a backlash from large service companies that demand that all federal government IT contracts done by workers in the United States.

As for technology standardization eroding the market for specialized IT workers--there's not a chance of that happening, says Cohen. Technology such as Web services is getting more complicated, not less. "Just look at the size of the user manual to run WebSphere, he says. "And you need a whole bookshelf to understand .Net. The technology is complicated and there are new niches for new jobs, but they just aren't catching on big enough yet."

That hopefully will change when the economy recovers. In the meantime, Cohen tells the next generation of college grads to look away from the trendy careers and follow their interests.

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