Seattle Area Lacks Computer Science Majors

May 31, 2012
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There are some job seekers who aren't having much trouble finding work - computer scientists. In Seattle alone, there are thousands of computer-related jobs waiting to be filled. And yet here's the hang-up. While those jobs in Seattle are available, one of Washington State's leading universities is not graduating enough people to fill them. The number of Bachelor's degrees awarded in computer science has remained unchanged for the past decade.

And as NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, boosting that number isn't so easy.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: A mid-size Seattle start-up called BigDoor is hiring. It's looking for another developer to help test its software. But finding the right person isn't easy and BigDoor's CEO, Keith Smith, says hiring is a huge challenge for just about every tech company in town.

KEITH SMITH: Really it just comes down to, I think, simple supply and demand. There are too many companies that are looking for great talent, and there's just not enough developers and engineers to go around.

KAUFMAN: On the University of Washington campus there are lots of students who want to become those developers and engineers, but many have been rebuffed in their effort to major in computer science or computer engineering.

RILEY PORTER: It's frustrating. I was so sure that I would get in, and then I didn't. I was very surprised.

KAUFMAN: That's Riley Porter, a sophomore here. Twice, Porter applied for the comp-sci major, and twice she was turned down, this is spite of the fact that she has a 3.6 GPA. And get this: She's a teaching assistant in an introductory programming class.

PORTER: Yeah, and that's actually not super-uncommon. I know quite a few other TA's who also can't get into a major either. There are a lot of very competent, good coders, and people who are very, very good analytically. There just aren't enough spots.

KAUFMAN: Porter hopes she will finally be accepted into the program later this year. But three out of four students who've completed the prerequisites and want to get into the major won't. That's deeply troubling to Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill and Melinda Gates chair in computer science.

ED LAZOWSKA: The last time that this program had an enrollment increase was in 1999.

KAUFMAN: Ancient history as far as technology is concerned. Lazowska isn't the only one who is troubled. So is University of Washington president Michael Young.

MICHAEL YOUNG: I think it's a huge problem - at two levels. I mean, one is the jobs are out there, to be sure. But the second part of it is, if you actually look at what's happened to the world, we have an enormous amount of information available to us. And dealing with this big data is incredibly important, and computer science is the absolute epicenter of that. So we have to have more computer scientists.

KAUFMAN: On a parochial level, the state wins if its citizens get those high paying jobs and it loses if companies can't get the talent they need and go somewhere else. Recognizing all of this, the state legislature has just given the computer science programs a slightly bigger chunk of the university's budget. But with overall funding for the school down sharply in recent years, the money can go only so far.

What's more, as Professor Lazowska points out, educating computer scientists is expensive, costing far more than many other fields.

LAZOWSKA: You're mentoring students in design and the creation of technology. It's not in the classroom where things happen here, it's in the lab. And that's largely a small group activity.

KAUFMAN: More funding for computer science could boost the number of degrees awarded by roughly a third, to about 350 a year. It's not nearly enough to address the talent shortage here, but it is a start.

Seattle, of course, is not the only place where employers can't find the computing talent they need. Indeed, government reports suggest that between now and the end of the decade, the number of students graduating with degrees in computer-related fields won't even begin to meet the economy's demand for computing know-how.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.