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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: