Computer science ‘still a good career,’ leader of job migration task force says

Moshe Vardi

Moshe Vardi

Students pursuing information technology careers but worried about the offshoring of jobs have nothing to fear, according to a report presented Nov. 2 to academics and members of the Stanford Computer Forum, an industrial affiliates program.

"There is a huge mismatch between perception and reality," Rice University Professor Moshe Vardi said. "There are more IT jobs now than there were six years ago at the height of the IT boom."

Vardi presented results from a study on the global migration of software jobs commissioned by the Association for Computing Machinery, the world's oldest and largest educational and scientific computing society.

He co-chaired a task force of economists, social scientists and computer scientists who spent a year reviewing all the available data on the global impact of offshoring for the information technology industry to reveal computing is still a viable field of study and work.

"IT is still a good career," Vardi said. "We have nothing to fear but the fear of competition itself."

Previous speculative data created the belief that jobs would not be waiting for computer science graduates, he said. But the picture is bright upon closer look at the increase in salaries and job openings. Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate companies are creating new IT jobs as fast as or faster than they are exported overseas, he said. As information technology becomes more pervasive in society, the report predicts the number of jobs applying computer skills will increase in areas that still have low IT intensity, such as construction, healthcare and retail trade.

"The salary for application programmer has continued to increase every year since 2001," he added.

The report described offshoring as a symptom of globalization. Just as advances in shipping technology opened up the world agricultural market, advances and standards in information technology have enabled the export of jobs overseas, Vardi said. "You can now eat bananas from Chile; you couldn't do it before you had air shipping," he said. "Now, communication technology enables the shipping of labor."

Some of the emotional challenges people faced during the Industrial Revolution are similar to what we are experiencing today, Vardi said. We are undergoing a period of change, and it is best to accept it, he said. "Offshoring is like the winter. You don't ask if it is good or bad—you ask what do you do about it. The answer is you dress warmly."

Without investing in research and development, a technology leader like the United States could lose its dominant position, Vardi cautioned. "We have to innovate or die."

Restrictive policies for foreign exchange students also could hurt the United States, Vardi said. "There is no question the U.S. has done as well as it has in IT because it had help from talent around the world," he said. International students are opting to study in Europe or Canada to avoid visa hassles, he noted. "We can't just take it for granted that people will come here."

Vardi also warned of the magnified risks to national security and personal privacy that offshoring creates. In 2006 the U.S. State Department pulled personal computers made in China from a secure network, and in 2003 a Pakistani medical transcriber threatened to post patients' personal records online. "When data flows all around the world, which laws apply?" he asked. "Where do we put the boundary?"

To ensure job security, students must learn business, communication and interpersonal skills, Vardi recommended. The personal touch will become as important as technological expertise, he said.

"There are jobs galore," agreed Suzanne Bigas, assistant director of the Stanford Computer Forum. The forum helps Stanford scholars network with leaders in the computer science industry and provides students the opportunity to meet with company representatives.

"We are busy interviewing well over 1,000 students every fall and spring," Bigas said. "The opportunities are right in front of students, if they just show up."

Brian D. Lee is a science writing intern with the Stanford News Service.