Market Demand for CS Graduates — and for CS Students

Many of you will remember the excellent coverage in Computerworld of the H-1B work visa, principally by writer Pat Thibodeau. He now has an article in the house magazine of IEEE-USA. (Over the years, I have, and continue to be, quite critical of the organization, but the article is very good and IEEE-USA is not the subject of my post here.)

As Thibodeau points out, the yearly production of new computer science (CS) graduates has waxed and waned over the years, in response to the perceived industry demand. Of course, there is a lag, and the freshman who eagerly started CS majors in 1998 encountered one of the worse markets when they graduated in 2002, but the elasticity of supply has been strong, both up and down.

Thibodeau cites several examples of universities in which CS enrollment is up sharply. However, there is more to the story than what meets his reporter’s eye.

Among other things, it is important to keep in mind that “numbers are power” in academia. The larger a department is, the more faculty it is allowed to hire; the more faculty it hires, the more external research funding is brought in, the more visible the department is in the research world, and so on.

In addition to such cynical reasons for expansion of enrollment, there are more altruistic ones. At Stanford, for instance, the CS Dept. embarked on a highly aggressive campaign to raise the enrollment numbers, yes, but they especially focused on drawing in more women. In any event, it was not the case that students suddenly, spontaneously started flocking to CS.

In my own department, CS at UC Davis, our numbers are up even more sharply, but for a different reason. Our campus administration decided a few years ago to greatly expand the size of the student body, both because “numbers are power” in academia and because the administration hopes that the school will qualify as a Hispanic Serving Institution. Whereas an upper-division course in my department would typically have an enrollment of 50 or so in the past, it is now common to see sizes of 150 or more.

So in addition to the obvious question of the level of demand for new CS grads in industry, there is the less obvious point that the CS departments themselves have a demand for CS students, and enrollment trends are multifaceted rather than strictly a function of industry demand for graduates.

Now, what about that industry demand? Thibodeau writes

Salaries for new grads are rising, too, which suggests that demand is real. The Hay Group division of Korn Ferry, an executive search firm, reported in May that salaries for new grads seeking jobs as software developers were $63,036, a 1.5% increase from last year.

Another survey by The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that the average starting salary for computer science graduates this year was expected to reach $65,540, a nearly 7 percent increase.

A key word here is expected, i.e. that 7% number was a projection. The actual number turned out to be 3.9%. And note that the Korn Ferry number, only 1%, is specifically for software developers, which is the main type of job for foreign CS grads.

In other words, once again the data put the lie to industry claims of a tech labor “shortage” and a corresponding “need” for H-1Bs. And as longtime readers of this blog know, I have always held that the main adverse impact of H-1B on U.S. citizens and permanent residents has been on the older workers, age 35 and up.

On an unrelated side note, I was glad to see Thibodeau quote Dartmouth CS professor Hani Farid, whose research involves determining whether images are forged or not. Fascinating stuff, and I urge any Dartmouth CS students to learn from the real master here. But keep in mind that, unlike most real world CS applications, for this one you’ll really need to know some math!

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36 thoughts on “Market Demand for CS Graduates — and for CS Students

  1. As a military veteran and IT worker of 15yr, I am still looking for a job after 12mo and hundreds of applications. My credentials are a BS from Cal State U in Math and CompSci, A+, Network+, MCP and courses in cybersecurity.

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    • Hi Richard,
      Sad to hear. I thought it was the programming, database related IT jobs that were destroyed by the H1-b influx. But it seems almost all aspects of IT and CS labor market are impacted by the influx. Years ago I read an article mentioning how employers in SF just can’t fill their info sec positions due to lack of qualified candidates. I will have to dig in more to see if this claim of shortage in cybersecurity is real and maybe just like other cliams, the opposite might be true : i.e. a glut of qualified candidates in cybersecurity.

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      • Most of the policy work I see in cybersecurity has nothing to do with programming in safeguards or tracking users. They seem to want to implement a policy of “insuring against attacks” by buying insurance. The companies don’t care if they get hacked, only that their losses are covered. This may be why they talk about a shortage of cybersecurity experts but don’t actually hire them. If they take responsibility for their own security then they are liable when they get attacked. If they simply buy the insurance, then they are safe because the insurance companies will pay for the damage.

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    • Please consider applying for a technical position at Verizon Wireless. They are always hiring engineers, site technicians, networking people, capacity planners, special events specialists (the folks who prep for high-demand events such as concerts, ballgames, etc.). I retired from there 3 years ago; we hired a Math major who did super on generating reports to track our performance stats for special events. Very important to be able to track one’s own measurements of network capability, as well as track customer complaints, solution resolution, telecom upgrades, etc.

      Superb benefits and excellent salary — best place I ever worked.

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    • Richard and others, the state of Oregon generally has a lot of IT openings. Salem has a more moderate price range compared to other West Coast cities. Here’s a link for ODOT but you can also check on other state agencies. You’ll have to take a pay cut coming from private industry. But I did and I love it. Great benefits and you get union protection.

      https://www.governmentjobs.com/careers/oregon/?keywords=ODOT

      Norm, one of these days I’ll send you an e-mail on IT opportunities up here for your students and others.

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      • Hello Pablo, while there may be a lot of postings for the state of Oregon, there isn’t much action on the hiring end.

        I live near Salem and I know several qualified people who have applied for state positions but have never heard back.

        On the contract side, when a PM,DEV or BA position opens up at ODOT or other agencies there are multiple contract/body shops flooding resumes to the hiring manager. And this is for jobs than run from 6 to 12 months and pay only 45-55 per hour. Sometimes down into the 30s without benefits.

        Oregon isn’t the promised land you detail out in your post. Many people from California move to Oregon hoping to get a job but find out it isn’t any better than where they came from.

        Sorry to disagree

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        • “multiple contract/body shops flooding resumes to the hiring manager.”

          Oregon passed a law in 2009 that prohibits the outsourcing of government jobs if the savings is due to lower pay/benefits. So what happened at UCSF can not happen in Oregon.

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  2. Determining whether an image has been forged on a computer is impossible. I did work on scanning documents for a govt project and the integrity of even the simplest image is impossible to maintain. I think the good doctor is wasting his time. There are too many different scanning devices, too many methods of storing the images, to many ways to compress them. What you put in is never the same as the original and what you get out is different too. I am not impressed.

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      • A lot of pattern recognition stuff, probably, which also has applications in demand forecasting (energy, telecom, transportation, etc.). This is the kind of job I enjoyed at Verizon Wireless — it’s also one that’s very hard to hire for, since there are no real “specs” for how to recognize somebody with those skills. I’ve never heard of a certification that includes real-world testing examples for such things, although somebody probably has one out there somewhere.

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    • I think you are confusing forgery with the loss of information that comes with scanning and compressing.

      Take a printed photo, scan it, and print it. Repeat several times. The output will get worse with every iteration (loss of information).

      The Dartmouth professor is working with forgeries such as an image being “photoshopped”. Take a look at some of his papers at the link given above. It has a lot to do with lighting angles. The problem gets harder if a cheap camera is used because the cheap camera introduces lighting errors/distortions.

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      • Since a computer can’t really identify any image for what it really is, it can only guess, and the process of scanning it in also distorts the image, it is really impossible to do anything other than take a guess. So I still stand by my statement. I do hope the good Dr. enjoys his grant in any case.

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        • Prof. Farid has been doing this for 20 years or so, both in research and in consulting in industry and litigation. He’s for real.

          It is more than just analyzing lighting, though that is a big factor in some cases. The deeper work comes from doing Fourier analysis to detect “unnatural” transitions in an image.

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  3. I’d say the demand for CS is miniscule. There are several reasons for this. First, I think CS died about 1990. There is no CS. It is now just a blanket term for anything involving computers. Now, there is great demand for people who can do stuff with computers, but that really isn’t CS. Second, what they really want are code camp graduates and seat fillers. Some huge percent of IT staff never does anything useful, but they help increase the department budget – per your article this is an important pattern! Now, at software companies, including platform companies like Google, there is some demand for CS, code camp escapees won’t do. And I hope to God they pay more than $65k, which was about the average BS engineering salary for Stanford graduates – circa 1985. Adjust that for inflation and it’s more like $160k today, depending on whose inflation numbers you believe. Across the fruited plain not a lot of people are paying $160k for a BS in CS. Maybe Google does in Silicon Valley, I dunno, but even if so, so what, it’s flat at best since 1985, and don’t even ask about 1975.

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  4. Norm, I hope you can attend this event.

    Here is a golden opportunity to let USCIS know that its time to serve American citizens. Please try to register and dial in to this event on Wednesday ,26th. If we don’t do that, the immigration lawyers and immigrants will be there to push for more visas. There is strength in numbers so encourage everyone to attend.

    https://www.uscis.gov/outreach/presidential-executive-order-buy-american-and-hire-american

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  5. Hi Norm and other readers,
    In follow up to my comment to Richard above, here is the article claiming severe shortage in cybersecurity: http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/cyber-life/sd-me-connected-highered-20170417-story.html

    There is a degree of doubt when I see vested interests propelling the shortage story. (I do have a lot of respect for academia, the tricky part is to verify whether they are doing paid PR stories or not).
    I can’t wrap my head around whether this shortage is real or not.
    With that kind of shortage, a guy like Richard with plenty of experience and cybersec credentials should be able to land at the least an entry level position in the field when these employers are so “desperate with unfilled positions”. Their shortage claims and whats practically happening on the ground don’t seem logical to me. I would like to hear from you guys on this subject.

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    • Anon, I think that’s a pretty good summary of the situation. Given Richard’s background, there should certainly be a role somewhere.

      I think the shortage claims are a combination of three things

      1. strategic manipulation of the labor market to reduce future labor costs. This is the big guys and their firms of lobbyists and tame economists.

      2. simple ignorance and narrow-mindedness on the part of hirers. Hirers are often young and inexperienced, so they don’t how to find or judge people. This occurs even in large corporations, because decisions are often delegated to the relevant technical departments.

      3. opportunistic exploitation of a gap in the market by outsourcers, especially using overseas workers

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      • Hi Tony,
        Thanks for the insightful post.

        One thing I read from other articles reg. this cybersecurity shortage is that the employers aren’t training fresh grads for the work. Normal demand supply labor economics would mean that we find companies training fresh grads with proper credentials. And there is the economic argument: If a company has a vacant spot and it is affecting their operations somehow (in case of security: preventing leak of critical business info, protecting day to day operations from breaches, and minimizing down time, etc.), they would do everything in their power to hire a person for it or at the least hire a qualified but relatively low experience guy and train him. When viewed from this economic angle, I find it contradicting to believe that there are a total aggregate of tens and thousands of spots that employers are desperately trying to fill but can’t fill them. It more or less sounds like what you have said: As employers, we would like to depress the wages of this sub sector as well and hence all the claims of shortage.

        And a specific interesting point : Richard being a military veteran and a US Citizen, it will be clear sailing to get the security clearances that are needed for government contract work. And this is part that may be providing an advantage to US Citizens. And in this huge shortage, a guy with credentials and being a US Citizen for security clearance should be considered a rich picking for info sec work.
        Maybe its only a matter of time before the security clearance process gets lobbied hard to make it easier for h1-b’s to get clearances.

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  6. This is completely unrelated but have you heard of staffing agencies that help international students on an OPT find jobs? I only became aware of their existence recently and it seems unethical yet perfectly legal.

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  7. I will also submit that the average starting salary for those who don’t even get a job in CS is zero. Unfortunately, in CS, that accounts for lots of people, people who eventually take their useless CS degrees and find other work. They don’t get factored into that statistic.

    While I was lucky enough at least to find an IT-related position 18 years ago with a tiny company at age 37 after 15 years of unemployment and marginal self-employment, even now I still don’t make that quoted $63,000 or $65,000 annual entry-level salary.

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  8. There is another reason for the sharp up tick in CS enrollment. There has been a sharp decline in the number of students majoring in the humanities. These students are now choosing STEM majors. The link mentions the growth of CS at Stanford. Well, Stanford is thinking about creating a five year history PhD program in response to the decline of history majors.

    Many high school career counselors are informing their students of the bleak future facing them if they choose to major in the humanities. For example, a drama major earns, on average, $4K more per year than a high school grad after 20 years. Not a smart investment considering the cost of college. Many students are therefore considering a STEM major.

    According to the “an article” link, “Gender balance is improving as well. In 2005, women accounted for about 15 percent of computer science enrollments at BU, but Crovella expects women to account for 30 percent of computer science declared majors in the upcoming year. The number of women enrolling in introductory courses was 47 percent last year.”

    This correlates well with the decline in the humanities. Students majoring in the humanities are more likely to be female. They are now choosing CS and other STEM majors.

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  9. Maybe if a university has hundreds of IT grads that can’t get jobs AND its discovered that nearby major IT firms are mostly hiring H1-Bs then you might get the start of a revolution.

    Throw in pissed off parents who had to pay tens of thousands or go in debt for said grads.

    It the story is repeated across the nation and there are marches and protests we may get somewhere.

    Visibility and squeaky wheels get things going. That’s how the Civil Rights legislation got passed in the ’60s.

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    • As I have said many times over the years, the new grads are doing fine, at least at my university. It’s the OLD grads, people 10 years or more out of school, who are impacted by the H-1B program.

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  10. Yes, I think this is key. I remember you pointing this out in your paper nearly 20 years ago. If someone becomes detached from the workforce for whatever reason, whether recession, unemployment or parenting duties, they will find it very hard to re-enter.

    This is different from other industries. For example, although the media is suffering, journalists tend to find other jobs, generally similar to their old ones in terms of status and pay. Editors land jobs as respected columnists. Journalists hold their noses and go into PR.

    I think the thing that’s different about IT generally is that there’s so much change, so issues are easily overlooked. Visas prevent the market operating as it should, and let hirers persist with their prejudices. The work by YC-backed Triplebyte is interesting in this regard, finding many irrelevant patterns in hiring. For example, for otherwise similar candidates, a candidate from a big company or elite university has a 30 per cent greater chance of being hired.

    http://blog.triplebyte.com/

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    • One of the major problems here is that HR departments are faced with a mountain of applicants, and they need some way to thin it out. So they will seize upon the slightest imperfection, real or perceived, in this case an applicant’s absence from the workforce for an extended period of. The applicant is deemed either (a) too weak to have been hired during that time, and/or (b) out of touch was supposedly fast-moving technology.

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