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Tech Bust Zaps Interest in Computer Careers

Times Staff Writer

There used to be waiting lists for Rick Ord’s classes as students packed 200-seat auditoriums to scribble down bits of code once thought to unlock a life of riches and security.

These days, Ord’s lectures on systems programming at UC San Diego convene in smaller halls with plenty of empty seats.

It’s the same scene on campuses across the country, as enrollment in computer science programs has dropped sharply -- down 23% from 2002 to 2003.

After flocking to computer science during the technology boom, students are fleeing it almost as fast, spooked by tales of unemployed programmers watching their jobs migrate to India and Eastern Europe.

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Ironically, the enrollment dip is occurring just as companies prepare to ratchet up hiring, prompting worries about a potential shortage of domestic tech workers when engineers from the Class of 2007 graduate. Long term, some fear that continuing declines could hamper technological innovation.

The Labor Department projects that the number of jobs for computer software engineers will grow 46% from 2002 to 2012. Earlier this year, Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates barnstormed five engineering schools to drum up interest.

“Computer science today is poised to do all these amazing things,” Gates told students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where computer science enrollments dropped 44% from 1999 to 2003.

The decline has hit just about every type of school. At UC Berkeley, the number of students enrolling in computer science and computer engineering dropped 41% in that period. Enrollments at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta fell 45%.

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Nationwide, new enrollments are at 1996 levels -- and few expect them to rebound soon.

“It’s been precipitous,” said John Guttag, head of MIT’s electrical engineering and computer science department.

At UC San Diego, home to the largest engineering school in the University of California system, applications to the program fell 24% from 2002 to 2003.

Jeanne Ferrante, associate dean of the UC San Diego school of engineering, said there was little mystery why. After hovering under 2% in the late 1990s, the jobless rate for computer scientists and systems analysts grew to 5.4% in the last three months of 2003. It then jumped to 6.7% in the first quarter of this year -- outstripping the overall national unemployment rate of 6.1%.

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“It used to be that students could name their job, their salary and their bonuses,” Ferrante said. “Now it’s not as easy.”

That scares Robert Omoto. Two years into his undergraduate studies at UC San Diego, the 20-year-old Sacramento native chose to major in biology rather than computer science, even though he’s been fascinated with technology since grade school.

After graduation, he plans to join his parents’ optometry business. “Everybody needs healthcare,” Omoto said. With computer science, “you can’t be sure there will be a job after you graduate.”

Phuc Ly, a computer science major at UCLA, graduated in June but considers the five years he spent getting his degree “a waste of time.”

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“My father basically wanted me to major in computer science so I could make a lot of money and support my family,” said Ly, a 22-year-old from San Jose. Inspired by the tech bubble, Ly’s father wanted him to become a millionaire. “That’s not going to happen, obviously.”

Instead, Ly plans to teach English in Japan while he contemplates new career paths.

Like many of his classmates, Ly signed up for computer science at the height of the technology boom in 1999. But the bubble burst and legions of programmers were laid off. Enrollment, which tends to lag behind employment by a year or two, took a dive in 2003 -- falling to 17,706 new students nationwide from 23,033 the year before.

For their part, tech companies are trying to reassure nervous students that jobs are out there. Gates’ college tour was part of that effort. His company plans to hire 4,000 new workers over the next 12 months.

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“There’s been an awful lot of gloom and doom post-bubble,” said Kristen Roby, Microsoft’s senior director of college recruiting.

IBM Corp. this year announced plans to hire 4,500 U.S. workers. Hewlett-Packard Co.'s chief executive, Carly Fiorina, said the company was likely to add 5,000 workers.

“Our ability to grow depends on the people we’re able to hire,” said Doug Burke, chief executive of DefenseWeb Technologies Inc. in San Diego, a defense contractor that needs to hire five software engineers. “And right now, I’m having a very difficult time finding talented engineers.”

Some companies have deeper concerns. “In the short term, we’ll get by,” said Nicholas M. Donofrio, IBM’s senior vice president of technology and manufacturing. “But in the long run, we have to take stock in this country’s ability to create, invent and innovate. That means understanding the business problems, applying the technology and creating the solutions. That can only happen if we’re better educated.”

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Many universities are adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Stuart Zweben, chairman of Ohio State University’s computer science department in Columbus, Ohio, pointed out that the slide came after an equally sharp rise -- a classic bubble. “We had a doubling of new computer science students” between 1995 and 2000 nationwide, he said. “That kind of growth was not sustainable.”

Some even welcome the drop in enrollment, including students who are able to get into courses much more easily and professors who no longer have to manage bulging classes.

“The smaller class sizes make for a much better learning experience,” said David DeWitt, chairman of computer science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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Calvin Park, a second-year UC San Diego computer science student, is thrilled that his classes aren’t packed.

“I see computer science as an art,” Park said. “Thank goodness all the people who are only interested in making money are out.”


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