July 12, 2008

Computer Grads Lag As Jobs Grow: Students Shun Classes Since 2000 Tech Bust.

By Phillip Reese, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Jul. 12--Computer science is one of the fastest-growing job sectors in Sacramento, it pays well, often doesn't require a four-year degree -- but local community college students are still shunning it.

In the past five years, Sacramento companies added about 4,100 computer science jobs -- about 800 new jobs a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median annual salary for computer science jobs -- including programming, Web development and help desk support -- is around $70,000.

But area college students aren't taking the kinds of classes -- or seeking the degrees -- that could help land those jobs.

During the same period, the number of information technology degrees issued by the Los Rios and Sierra community college systems fell 65 percent, from 614 in 2002 to 213 during 2007.

Declines, though not as pronounced, also have occurred at the University of California, Davis, and California State University, Sacramento. The number of UC Davis computer science graduates dropped 35 percent in the past five years; at CSUS, the drop was 20 percent.

The tech boom of the late 1990s and subsequent bust in 2000 and 2001 are largely to blame for the trend, according to recruiters, researchers and local college administrators. Potential students and their parents saw headlines about failing tech companies and concluded that IT jobs were at best risky, or at worst, disappearing altogether.

"It's really hard to change a perception about opportunities," said Barbara Blanchard, dean of computer science and information technology at American River College.

ARC awarded just 46 information technology degrees last year, down from 194 during 2002. The college used to hold classes in the afternoon, Friday nights -- even on Sundays, Blanchard said.

"The classes used to be busting at the seams, now they average between 20-25 in a 30-station computer lab, depending on the course," Blanchard said.

The shortage of qualified workers has forced companies to import IT employees. About 600 computer science workers moved to Sacramento, Yolo, El Dorado and Placer counties from different metro areas in 2006, according to the latest census data. And roughly 10 percent of the Sacramento region's computer science workers came here from a foreign country within the past decade.

Some explanations for the trend have little to do with fear or apathy about computer science. Community and four-year colleges aren't the only way to break into the IT business. Many IT companies no longer care about degrees -- they just want evidence of computer skills and experience, said Jody Hilton of Roseville-based Strategic IT Staffing, a worker recruitment firm.

Of companies looking for help recruiting, he said, "Maybe 30 or 40 percent of them require a degree."

It's also easier than ever to get a degree online or at a private technical college, which could eat into community college enrollment, Hilton added.

But community college remains an inexpensive way to learn IT skills -- the typical class, with books, costs about $100. And the number of online or private college IT degrees doesn't offset the drop in community college IT degrees, numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show.

Hilton and others say they're increasingly having trouble recruiting for local companies. The most in-demand computer science jobs involve Web development, software development and networking, Hilton said.

Cosumnes River College near Elk Grove offers multiple courses in those disciplines. But it has been hit hard by the drop in enrollment.

CRC bolstered its computer science program during sunnier days a few years back. It offers 27 types of computer science degrees and certificates -- but it only had 33 computer science graduates last year, down from 189 in 2002.

Norv Wellsfry, who teaches accounting and software classes, has been at CRC through the boom and subsequent bust. On a recent summer day, he stood in front of several rows of shiny new Gateway computers and used a projector to walk students through creating charts on a spreadsheet. Many of the seats in the class were empty.

It astounds Wellsfry that more students aren't signing up. The college has had to let go a few of his colleagues -- mostly adjunct, part-time professors with deep knowledge of the field.

"When it looked like demand was really ramping up, the district hired a lot of computer science instructors," Wellsfry said. "Then, the crash."

Wellsfry and other community college officials say the trend may have bottomed out. They're starting to see enrollment increase, though the uptick is too new to have produced many degrees.

Shaun Hobbs is one of the new IT students at CRC. He plans to become a certified network administrator within the next year.

"I'm an unemployed mortgage underwriter," said Hobbs, of Rancho Murieta. He has a relative who runs a software company, so he knows about the local IT job market. "The demand is there."

Sitting near Hobbs in Wellsfry's spreadsheet class was Sandra Alonso of Acampo. She took the class because it is required for her major. But seeing how fast she can perform calculations with spreadsheets has gotten her interested, and she's thinking of switching from business to computer science.

It's inevitable that more students will come to similar conclusions, college administrators say. When demand exceeds supply in a job sector while the rest of the economy is struggling, a lot of people are going to take notice.

"I don't see any evidence," said Luis Sanchez, associate dean of business and technology at Sierra College, "that organizations are becoming less dependent on computers."


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