The Supply of Information Technology Workers in the United States
Chapter 8: Seed-Corn Issues
Is the Strong Industrial Demand for IT Workers Harming the Educational System?
Many educators, industrial laboratory leaders, and government science officials are concerned that the high industrial demand for information technology (IT) workers will siphon out of the educational systems many students who would otherwise pursue an advanced degree. This diminishes pool of people who will join the university faculties that perform basic research and teach the next generation of students. This problem is compounded when industry also successfully recruits current faculty members, including junior faculty who would become the academic leaders of the profession in the coming decades. This is known as the "seed-corn" problem-an analogy to those who consume too much of this year's crop, reserving too little for next year's planting. A similar situation occurred in 1980.
In 1980 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 1.4 million employees in "computer occupations" in the United States, and estimated that the number would grow to 2.1 million by 1990. By this date, after 15 years of continuing expansion in academic computing programs, about 25,000 bachelor's degrees, 5,000 master's degrees, and 250 doctoral degrees in computer science were being awarded annually in the United States. The estimated annual demand for these categories was 50,000, 30,000 and 1000, respectively, and a significant concern arose about whether this demand could be met in the coming years.
The supply shortfall was being covered by people educated in related disciplines who acquired, in various ways, the skills necessary for an IT career. However, as technological change continued to accelerate, it became evident that a higher percentage of workers in the field would need an education that focused on computing and information technology. A closer examination of academic programs in 1980 showed that, although the numbers of bachelor's and master's students and degrees each year were expanding rapidly, the number of doctorates in computer science had leveled off at 250. Significant numbers of graduate students were leaving the doctoral programs to go directly into industry. Less than half of the new doctorates were accepting faculty positions, which appeared insufficient to sustain the academic programs needed to meet the demands of undergraduate and master's degree programs. The chairs of essentially all of the Ph.D.-granting computer science departments in the United States and Canada gathered together and identified three immediate needs:
- a computational infrastructure for faculty and graduate students comparable to that found in the best industrial research labs;
- funding to support Ph.D. students throughout their study period; and
- new faculty positions to accommodate the burgeoning undergraduate enrollments, while continuing to provide the faculty adequate time (comparable to that provided in other scientific and engineering disciplines) to supervise graduate students and conduct research.
In large part because of the unanimity of the agreement on the needed steps, they were taken swiftly. The National Science Foundation (NSF) took the lead in providing computational infrastructure support, which was significantly supplemented by grants from companies. NSF and companies established new programs of doctoral student support (with several companies making the support conditional upon the student's commitment to pursue an academic career). Universities added significant numbers of faculty positions to cover the growing enrollments. By 1990 the annual Ph.D. production had quadrupled to about 1,000.
However, the problems persisted. By the mid-to-late 1980s, it was becoming apparent that the growth in faculty was not being accompanied by a commensurate growth in funding for faculty research and graduate education activities. Also, the call for full funding for Ph.D. students had not been completely answered. As the number of students increased, this lack of funding became increasingly apparent. Although the new steps taken were on track at this time to enable the production of 1,000 Ph.D.s per year, they would prove inadequate for building an academic enterprise sufficiently large to both continue the production of Ph.D.s and educate the growing number of undergraduate and master's students. For example, a 1983 study showed that the computer science bachelor-degree-to-faculty ratio was twice that in electrical engineering and four times or more the ratio in any other related discipline. In addition, the computer science full-time-graduate-student-to-faculty ratio was 50 percent higher than that of electrical engineering and of all engineering, and three times higher than the ratio of any other related discipline. Such workloads made alternate careers for computer science faculty very attractive indeed, and discouraged students from choosing such a faculty career.
With this history providing perspective, there are early signs of another cycle of "eating our seed corn." The conditions are similar: aggressive recruiting by industry that is luring high-quality undergraduates away from considering graduate school; doctoral-caliber graduate students leaving graduate programs after completing only a master's degree; faculty shying away from high-pressure teaching positions; and burgeoning undergraduate enrollments that are creating large class sizes, an inflated faculty-to-student ratio, and overcommitted faculty.87 Not surprisingly, there is a downward trend in the number of computer science doctorates awarded annually during the 1990s (1,074 awarded in 1990-91, 894 in 1996-97).88 The number of new doctoral graduates entering academia is slightly more than 40 percent if postdoctoral and academic research positions, as well as faculty positions, are included. This percentage has not been increasing, which means that the total number entering the teaching field is lower. Meanwhile, the number of faculty positions being advertised has skyrocketed. Advertisements in Computing Research News, for example, have doubled over the past two years.
Other signs of a seed-corn problem are appearing. Universities have already experienced severe shortages in several faculty areas, including networking, databases, and software engineering, and faculty recruiting is becoming much more difficult.. There are fewer qualified applicants, positions are taking longer to fill, and some are going unfilled. The general attitude of the computing research community at the moment is to monitor the situation closely, until the data and qualitative evidence make it more apparent that a serious seed-corn problem does exist. If this is determined, then actions similar to those taken in the 1980s by government, industry, and academia working together may be warranted.
The situation today is, however, different in some respects from 1980.89 Today, IT facilities in universities are more like those in industry than they were in 1980; and a healthy research program in experimental computer science now exists in the universities. However, the focus of university research has become much more short-term than it used to be, making it less different from industrial research; this change has removed one incentive for faculty and graduate students to remain in the universities. High-level IT professionals today employed across a much larger number of employers, including many outside the IT sector. This makes it more difficult for industry to work together, as companies did in the 1980s, to restrain the raiding of faculty and graduate students from universities.
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Document last modified on Wednesday, 04-Apr-2012 06:51:20 PDT.