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The job market for computer science graduates moves so quickly that by the time anything is said about it, something new pops up to change the dynamics of the industry. However, two words will remain standard for some time to come—booming and profitable.

By Charlotte Thomas

The job market for computer science graduates moves so quickly that by the time anything is said about it, something new pops up to change the dynamics of the industry. However, two words will remain standard for some time to come—booming and profitable.

"The field is going in so many directions, that's what keeps it lucrative," says Edward Lazowska, chairman of the department of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle and chairman of the board of the Computer Research Association (CRA).

BIG BUCKS BUT CRYING THE BLUES

Newly-hired computer science majors to seasoned company execs earn big bucks in computing and software. Corporate HR people, however, are crying the blues about the lack of qualified applicants, which forces up salaries and increases "churn" as employees jump between competitors.

Reports of available job openings in major corporations are staggering. A recent Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) study claims a shortfall of 190,000 unfilled positions. The same report states that companies on the magnitude of Intel have 3,000 openings as does Microsoft with 2,000 and Sun Microsystems at 1,000.

NEW JOBS NOBODY HEARD OF

"New jobs are opening up that nobody even heard of 10 years ago," says Peter Denning, dean of Computer Science and vice provost for Continuing Professional Education at George Mason University. "Jobs with titles like web master, windows NT server system administrator, network identity graphics designer."

Denning questions the numbers of unfilled jobs. For instance, many of them can be filled by retrained people without CS degrees. But no matter how the numbers fall, 68% of information technology companies say lack of qualified staff hinders their ability to grow. In the Seattle area alone Lazowska says 3,000 software and digital media firms are "hiring like crazy."

Denning speculates that the situation will eventually resolve itself as future savvy college students head into computer science and private companies emerge to offer training.

EXPLAINING THE HIRING FRENZY

Business trends indicate why the hiring frenzy got started in the first place. "Just about every industry relies on information technology and computing to some degree," says Lazowska. Stu Zweben, professor and chair of Computer and Information sciences at Ohio State University and also a CRA board member, agrees that new hardware products are becoming faster and cheaper.

Adding to the turmoil, every business sector is cooking up new software application needs. Says Zweben, "There are very few areas of business that don't have some stake in computing and software."

Marjory S. Blumenthal, executive director of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board at the National Research Council, brings up data mining as an example of the effect software has on business growth. "Large-scale retailers are using it,' she says, "and they can afford computer scientists." Wall Street, too, actively recruits electrical engineers to develop the algorithms that make trading decisions, says Lazowska.

THE ETHICS OF SOFTWARE SYSTEMS

One development leads to another, creating new needs for software development. System assurance is a major factor. As more industries see the possibilities of software applications, they must ensure their systems are crash-proof. Denning adds designer integrity. "We have to know that systems are crash-proof, dependable, reliable and safe (if people's lives depend on them). But we also have to know that the designers who created those systems are well trained and ethical." This forces the issue of certification. Denning speculates that formal licensing is likely within the next decade.

These emerging developments in computing will make the past few years seem like ancient history. Blumenthal mentions the explosion of cellular telephony. She uses the term nomadicity to explain the "anytime, anywhere" direction in which telecommunications is headed. Lazowska notes the convergence of computing and telecommunications. Computers are becoming communication devices. As a result, systems integration and the search for a universal infrastructure is likewise increasing jobs.

And the Internet, by now a household word, generates enormous potential from Web page design to the issue of privacy and security. The possibilities that embedded systems open up are another big ticket item looming on the horizon.

Computer science graduates not only have their pick of jobs, they have multiple employers to choose from. Aside from established corporations of all flavors, Denning observes the growth of start-ups, particularly in computers and software. It looks like between jobs and employers, computer science majors have hit the hot button.

CHURN THE RAPIDS OF SUCCESS

Perhaps you haven't yet heard the term "churning," but you will. It refers to the growing practice, especially for graduates of hot degrees, to accept a job in one company only to be lured away by another company with a more lucrative salary. The bait is enticing, but Peter Denning, dean of Computer Science and vice provost for Continuing Education at George Mason University, raises a warning flag.

Initially, it looks like a no-brainer to accept a higher offer. However, Denning compares churning to white water rafting. "You can be easily dumped by boaters, who are more practiced than you. Unless you maintain a deep, broad practical knowledge of the current, as do river guides, you can be knocked off balance by hidden dangers."

New graduates may have theoretical knowledge about currents and hidden rocks, but they don't know the river yet. Watch out. Before jumping from higher offer to higher offer, find out what's beneath its churning surface.

NUMBER CRUNCHING PLUS


  • The job market for computer science graduates might be red-hot today, but employers aren't hiring warm bodies. They still demand skills and a commitment to ongoing career development.

  • Communication skills are vital. Corporate recruiters say don't talk to us if you can't communicate with our customers or management.

  • Keep up to date. Continuing education is vital. Your competition will get stiffer.

  • Be prepared to respond quickly to changing market conditions -- learn new skills.

  • Get the big picture of the computing industry, not just your particular focus.

  • Have your competence in the field be certified.

  • Remember the athlete's motto: "Somewhere out there he is training, and I am not; and when we meet, he will win."

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