Catch of the Day

Computer science graduates and professors find themselves in demand in a booming market.

by Kathryn Austin

"Being recruited has been a blast."

So said Janet Kirvoy as she prepared to graduate with a bachelor's degree in computer science last spring. "Recruiters have sent e-mails inviting me to interview. They threw parties and invited everyone in the College of Engineering. They gave out gifts and they fed us. It's been really fun!"
So what is it about Kirvoy that has recruiters falling all over themselves for an interview? Information technology (IT). "If you know computer-based systems," one graduate explained, "companies just go nuts."

As a result of her IT prowess, Kirvoy not only experienced the thrill of heavy recruiting, she also landed a dream job with Microsoft at a competitive salary. In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that the average salary offer for computer science majors nationwide has risen 8.5 percent since January 1999 to $48,695. The average salary accepted by grads in computer science from the U was $49,077, and offers ranged from $40,593 to $62,000, according to April 2000 data. This doesn't include signing bonuses of $2,000-$12,000 and other perks, like stock options.

"The demand in Utah and across the nation for software engineers, analysts, and programmers is booming," reports Lisa Christensen BA'96, a career services advisor for students in engineering. Shane Brinhurst, a recruiter from Raytheon Company, agrees that electrical engineers, computer scientists, and computer engineers are in the greatest demand-"and they know it." These grads are able to negotiate starting salaries that exceed companies' offers. Moreover, as the demand increases, companies are forced to find ways to market themselves to students. "This is the first year that I have seen invitations for interviewees to bring their spouses with them to the place of potential employment," Brinhurst observes. "We have to sell the job to both of them."

On the other hand, the increased demand for IT workers has led some companies to use high-pressure tactics to ensure that they are not left empty-handed at the end of the recruiting cycle. After extending a job offer, some employers are giving students only a short time-as little as half a day-to accept it. Other companies are setting deadlines that fall just before competing corporations are set to enter the fray. However, with the vast majority of IT recruiting at the U happening through its Career Services' office, students have a refuge from such tactics. Nevertheless, students report that other recruiting tactics are not so easily mediated. After accepting an offer, students are often approached by other companies. Kirvoy expresses surprise at how many of her fellow students allowed themselves to be poached away by competing offers. "A lot of recruiters do come to you saying, 'I understand that you are not looking anymore, but we'd like the opportunity to make you a better offer,'" she says, "and you need to have the integrity to turn them down."

Faculty members are also finding it difficult to turn down offers from the greener pastures of industry. High-paying, fast-paced jobs in the computer industry are attracting both seasoned academics and newly minted Ph.D.s nationwide who, in the past, would have opted for careers in higher education, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Even the U is not immune to the problem. Tom Henderson, new chair for the Department of Computer Science, reports that the U advertised five faculty positions this year, while the University of Wisconsin and the University of Washington advertised seven each, Florida's higher education system advertised 15, and most other schools advertised at least three. "It's definitely a seller's market right now, and it's a tough time for recruiting," Henderson laments.

Robert Kessler, past chair of the department, explains, "Research labs are hiring tons and tons of faculty. If you are maintaining your numbers, you are considered to be doing well, even if that means losing three and hiring three." In an attempt to avoid playing a game of tug-of-war with industry, the U prefers giving faculty members a year or two of leave to pursue their interests. Never-theless, there is always a need for new faculty. Both chairs concede that the biggest concern when faced with such a tight market is finding quality individuals.

A report released in June 1999 by the Computing Research Association called the faculty shortage in computer science "severe," warning that competition for Ph.D.s from the private sector may pose a significant threat to the health of university departments. It is known as the "seed-corn" problem-an analogy to those who consume too much of this year's crop, reserving too little for next year's planting.

The problem starts with the high demand for IT workers that siphons out students who would otherwise pursue advanced degrees. The report points out that staying at a university to teach undergraduates and steal time to pursue doctoral research is not capturing the imagination of graduating IT go-getters who know that faculty salaries tend to be low compared with industry salaries. Thus, the pool of people who will join university faculties and teach the next generation of students diminishes. The problem is compounded when industry also successfully recruits current faculty members.

Even the U is caught in this dilemma. "We are doing everything we can to expand the number of graduates each year," explains Gerald Stringfellow, dean of the College of Engineering, "but we're not keeping up with demand." In order to produce more graduates, the department must expand the space, the faculty, and the number of computers. "Our limitation has been resources," he says.
Over the years, the Department of Computer Science has made small expansions. Kessler reports that only a few years ago there were 60 seats available for those declaring computer science as a major. Now there are 80 seats. In addition, 40 seats are available in a computer engineering degree program. Nevertheless, numerous applicants have been turned away. Students interested in computer science take a year of introductory classes. At the end of the year, they apply for major status. "We calculate the students' GPAs in those classes and then admit the top 40 or 80, depending on the degree," Kessler explains. Right now the minimum GPA fluctuates around 3.5. "It's a department where high school valedictorians represent the average," says Kirvoy. "There are a lot of really smart people in computer science."

But major expansion is on the way. This summer, the Depart-ment of Computer Science became the School of Computing. Understanding that the department had outgrown its mission, the Board of Trustees changed the name as well as the way the department operates. "The term 'department' connotes a narrower field of influence than 'school,' and computer science has become a well-defined discipline," Henderson explains. "Renaming the department as the School of Computing allows us to take a broader role and place within the University community." Stringfellow says the goal "is to double the size of the Department of Computer Science in five years and to add five endowed chairs."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 110 percent increase in the number of jobs for computer engineers and systems analysts by 2006.

The Department of Computer Science already boasted multidisciplinary programs, working with the Department of Electrical Engineering to offer bachelor's and master's degrees in computer engineering and with the geography department to offer a Global Information System (GIS) certificate. The School of Computing intends to broaden connections with the rest of campus. Right now, several opportunities are being considered. "We are talking with the School of Medicine about developing a program in bioinformatics, the College of Fine Arts about an animation program, and the School of Business about a program in software engineering," Henderson says.
The School of Computing will also address the needs of those degree recipients who wish to enter industry. Currently, students graduating with a bachelor's degree in computer science are best suited to go on to graduate school. "They have been given the fundamentals," Henderson explains, "but they can't go as far in industry without more specific knowledge." Therefore, the School may offer two tracks so students can either prepare for graduate school or for managing computer systems. "We want to make it possible to match education with a student's interests as well as the needs of society," says Henderson.

As the school attempts to address the changing needs of industry, however, there are times when education is undermined. Two years ago, for example, Kessler began offering a class that gives practical exposure to the process of creating large software systems, including specifications, design, implementation, testing, and maintenance. After taking this class, several students reported finding jobs in the computer industry. Kessler believes that after the first paycheck, many students opted to forego the degree. "I know that we are losing students to industry," he says. Nevertheless, Brinhurst insists that larger companies like Raytheon will not consider applicants without a four-year degree. "I believe that for start-up companies, education is probably less important, but established companies want employees who are well-rounded," he says.

In the meantime, graduates like Kirvoy find themselves in a booming market. And projections published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that demand will not decrease in the future. In fact, the Bureau predicts a 110 percent increase in the number of jobs for computer engineers and systems analysts by 2006. The School of Computing is making its debut none too soon.

-Kathryn Austin BA'00 is Continuum editorial intern

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