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Job market, salaries soar for computer science graduates

The number of computer science graduates in the U.S. is rising every year, as are starting salaries, signaling a strong demand for talent.

Published: 12 Mar 2021

There are more U.S. students in undergraduate computer science programs than ever before. And the cost of hiring newly minted graduates is set to jump. 

Employers expect to offer 2021 computer science graduates an annual average salary of $73,550 — a more than 7% increase compared to the year prior, according to recent data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a professional association in Bethlehem, Pa. 

The wage increase is happening along with job growth for computer science graduates programs, as tracked by the Computing Research Association (CRA), an industry group in Washington. 

“There’s a point at which it has to stop,” Stuart Zweben, professor emeritus of computer science and engineering at The Ohio State University, said of the rapid enrollment gains. But “so far, we do not see evidence of a job shortage.”

Zweben works on the CRA’s Taulbee Survey, which analyzes computer science, computer engineering and information systems enrollment and graudation rates at Ph.D.-granting institutions in the U.S. and Canada. Doctoral institutions grant between one-third to one-fourth of the U.S. bachelor’s degrees in computer science, but the CRA data is consistent with broader enrollment trends.

The CRA will release its next report in May, which will provide an analysis of 2020 and is expected to exceed the organization’s projected increase. 

The rise of computer science graduates in the U.S. could influence a company’s recruitment strategy. The continued influx of talent may affect how reliant companies are on H-1B visa workers, a high percentage of whom provide IT-type skills. But despite growing interest, computer science programs are still producing a homogenous rather than diverse group of graduates.

U.S. government data backs up trends

The U.S. government data on computer science graduates lags the CRA reporting by several years. In the 2017-2018 academic year, the government’s most recent data, it reported nearly 79,600 bachelor’s degrees were earned in computer and information science. The figure indicates an 11.5% increase over the year prior, where the number of computer and information science degrees topped out at 71,400. 

Following the crash of the dot-com bubble in the early 2000s, interest in computer science declined. In 2007, CRA’s Taulbee Survey, which has been conducted since the 1970s, only tracked about 10,000 graduates.

At Stanford University, computer science major declarations by year showed 87 computer science majors in the 2007-2008 academic year, when majors in the field bottomed out. In the last three academic years up to 2018-2019, Stanford’s computer science major declarations have been 381, 377 and 386 respectively.

One problem that persists in computer science is its lack of diversity. In the CRA’s 2019 analysis, women and people of color account for about 21.5% of graduates in computer science, engineering and information science undergrad degree programs — a slight increase from prior years. Black students make up for about 4.1% of enrollment in computer science, engineering and information science; that number has changed over the years, but the percentages are too small to identify an improving trend, the CRA said.  

This chart shows the number of computer science and computer engineering bachelor’s degree graduates at Ph.D.-granting institutions in the U.S. and Canada. The 2020 projection may be on the low side, according to the Computing Research Association.

When the dot-com bubble burst, many firms began laying off highly-skilled technical employees just as computer science enrollments were peaking, according to Zweben. It took time for the market to adjust, he said. 

What’s different about computer science today “is that people understand the fact that every discipline — no matter whether you’re in technology or not — that it’s important to know something about it,” Zweben said. 

Indeed, Mehran Sahami, a professor and the associate chair for education in the computer science department at Stanford University, said enrollments in computer science “are starting to plateau.” But, he added, there are dynamics at play regarding the plateau that aren’t captured by the potential trend.

One factor affecting enrollments is “new and revamped options for other majors with a computational component that can provide options for students to do a major with a computing component without necessarily majoring in computer science,” Sahami said. 

H-1B workers are part of the debate

The uptick of enrollment in computer science programs has policy implications. For decades, technology firms have argued that the U.S. does not produce enough computer science graduates to meet domestic demand. Some visa program critics see the steady rise in computer science grads as evidence that the market is working and believe the country’s reliance on visas should decline.

H-1B visa workers in computer science and IT occupations make up about 65% of all H-1B visa applicants. The government estimates that H-1B workers make up about 10% of the overall IT labor force, but it’s higher in some other areas. For example, visa workers make up about 22% of software developers, according to government data. 

“Real demand that is reflected in the market will lead to an increase in supply,” said Hal Salzman, professor of public policy at Rutgers University and at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. The increase in enrollments and starting salaries “suggests that policymakers should let the market work and not interfere by expanding guestworker supply,” he said. 

Another benefit for U.S. hiring is “it may help boost the diversity numbers in STEM, especially in IT where they have engaged in highly exclusionary hiring,” Salzman said. 

Biden’s immigration plan doesn’t increase the number of H-1B visas the U.S. provides annually; instead, it makes it easier for STEM visa workers to get permanent residency or green cards.

But Victor Janulaitis, CEO at Janco Associates, a labor market research firm, doesn’t believe there are enough computer science graudates to meet market needs. He said the economy needs upward of 80,000 new people annually in the IT job market to meet new demand and replacements. 

“It is good that most of the bachelor degrees are going to U.S. students,” Janulaitis said. “However, a much better measure would be how many of these individuals are actually getting jobs in those areas of IT that will grow — information security analysts and software developers versus computer programmers.” 

“The increase [in graduates] should help close the skills gap,” said Russell Harrison, director of government relations at IEEE-USA, an engineering association. As computer fields become more specialized, a graduate’s specific area of study matters.

Demand for cybersecurity experts “has shot up over the past few years as virtually every company in the country has realized they need someone on staff to protect their systems, but enrollments haven’t kept up,” Harrison said.

Those types of jobs, however, also tend to be harder to fill with H-1B visa workers. “Many companies want people in these positions who they trust,” Harrison said. “Not a rental employee who will move on in a couple of years.”

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