Friday, April 21, 2006

Not the Time to Jump the Tech Job Ship

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

Chances are that, if you’re not in college yourself right now, you know someone who is. If that’s the case, you’ll want to pay special attention to this article because it could help you or your college friends make some critical decisions about their future careers.

There’s been a lot of uncertainty about the number and quality of technology jobs that will be around in a few years for those entering college now. Much of this doubt is surrounded by economic and political factors, but the big cause for concern has been the huge exodus of U.S. tech jobs to foreign countries. For this reason alone, a lot of college students I’ve talked to have reconsidered their major–shifting from computer science and engineering to biology, chemistry, or one of the many non-science fields.

Before you or someone you know makes a similar switch, consider these three facts regarding the future of the American technology job market:

  1. Nearly 20% of workers in the technology industry are currently eligible for retirement.
  2. Every year, visual and performing arts graduates outnumber those receiving engineering BAs.
  3. Not all American technology jobs can be outsourced, and very few that can be actually are.

These facts are taken from a Wall Street journal commentary by Bob Stevens, President and CEO of technology and defense powerhouse Lockheed Martin. The article is mostly a lament on the sorry state of science education in grades K-12, but Stevens says several things that point to the idea that there will indeed be a severe shortage of technology workers in the years to come…

One in every three of Lockheed’s employees is over 50. To sustain our talent base, we’re hiring 14,000 people a year. In two years, we’re going to need 29,000 new hires; in three years, 44,000. If this trend continues, over the next decade we will need 142,000. … Yet Department of Education data suggests U.S. colleges and universities are only producing about 62,000 engineering BAs a year… and that figure hasn’t grown in a decade.

Where I work, we’ve been seeing a tremendous push to hire new talent (even those with no previous experience at all!) and to move existing employees into leadership positions far sooner than they normally would be. But all the hiring and training in the world won’t prevent the inevitable–the U.S. will experience a major crisis when the pool of tech employees dries up. While it’s too soon to forecast the result of such an event, Bob Stevens anticipates it will lead to problems like national security shortfalls, slow economic growth, and maybe even a sudden halt to the sweeping technological advances of the past century.

But for young people beginning college (or for the young at heart who know it’s never too late to start over), the tech job crisis will mean more job offers for higher salaries in a wide variety of interesting positions. So don’t let the sole reason you or someone you know leave an engineering major be fear of unemployment.

That said, Bob Stevens brings up another good point:

A major study ranked us 24 out of 29 countries in terms of 15-year-olds’ ability to apply math skills.

While this doesn’t mean that American college students can’t still pick up the skills they need to be successful in their math- or science-related careers, it does mean that they might not have as much of an interest in such careers. I totally understand that, and I don’t want people giving up their dreams of being a photographer or historian just because there will be a lot of jobs in engineering. For that reason, I typically encourage new college students to follow this formula for finding the major that best suits them:

  1. Unless you’re absolutely certain that a science or technology field is perfect for you and you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, enter college as a liberal arts major that most closely matches your area of interest (English, history, art, etc.).
  2. If you enjoy your major, stick with it, work hard, and get your degree as soon as you can. Finding a job may be difficult, but at least you’ll really enjoy what you do.
  3. If some time goes by and you don’t like your major, and if you’re starting to think that a science or technology major might be more your thing, only then should you make the switch.

The reason I advocate starting with a non-science major is because most people will end up graduating in a non-science field, and more people end up switching from a science major to a non-science one than vice versa. Making the switch from a science major to a non-science one usually means restarting the four-year clock for the typical college student, but non-science majors who switch to science can usually apply their earned liberal arts credits to general degree requirements.

It might seem counterintuitive to try to grow the tech job pool by encouraging more liberal arts majors, but following this strategy will help ensure that tech graduates are truly interested in their fields and not always wondering if they made the right career decision. Still, if you’re 14 years old and building Beowulf computer clusters in your parents’ basement, then don’t let me stop you from completing your computer science degree in three years, because I’ll be the first person to say that we need folks like you badly!

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