Computer science jobs pushing popularity, disparities still exist

The demand for tech talent, and those who can teach those skills in Georgia, is on the rise.

Growing demand is good news on the job front for recent graduates, but it is a challenge for local universities, who are trying to supply enough classes and teachers.

“One issue is that more people are being told to learn to code, and computer science has really become essential in not just science, technology, and math fields, but in any field,” said Barbara Ericson, director of Computing Outreach and a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech.

Universities haven’t ramped up to meet the demand, and as a result, there have been bottlenecks at the undergraduate level.

That bottleneck has played out at Georgia State University, where computer science majors took to the media last month to complain about a shortage of available classes needed to graduate and professors to teach them.

There, computer science has recently been the fastest growing major, and has doubled in the number of students in the past five years. Last fall, 1,250 undergraduate and 155 graduate students were enrolled in Georgia State’s computer science program.

A national survey of 2015 graduates found that the majority of them — 82 percent — were either employed or in graduate school six months after graduation. Computer science graduates fared best, with 76 percent of that group working full time.

“Parents in the past wanted their kids to be doctors and lawyers, now they want them to be computer scientists,” said John Medlock, the assistant dean for academic services in Georgia State’s college of arts and sciences.

To meet the demand, the university is adding seven new faculty to the 19 members already on the program’s staff. That should meet student demand.

Georgia Tech made headlines for its online computer science masters degree program in 2014, called the first such accredited program in the country. Since then, the program has become a national model for providing a popular for-credit program to a large number of students at a cheaper cost. The school has had more than 10,000 applicants in two-and-a-half years, and 76 graduates thus far.

“The bottleneck is with graders,” said Zvi Galil, dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Computing. “The larger the class the more people we need.”

And despite its popularity, the computer science industry still lacks the diversity of other fields — and the disparity starts early.

About 18 percent of students in Georgia State’s undergraduate computer science program are female. Three of its computer science faculty members are female, and with the new hiring, the school is hoping to add three more.

Last year, less than 3,000 schools passed the audit to offer advanced placement computer science, compared to nearly 12,000 institutions able to offer AP calculus. Black students have the lowest pass rate of the AP computer science exam nationally and in Georgia, according to the College Board. Schools like Georgia State and Tech have also started outreach programs for minority and female students in grade school to introduce them to the field earlier.

“There has to be a revolution in the K-12 school system. There should be reading, writing, arithmetic and computer science,” said Raj Sunderraman, acting chairman of Georgia State’s computer science department. “I think computer science or programming will have to be mandated for students to be exposed.”

President Obama is pushing a $4 billion plan for every grade-school student to learn computer science from teachers prepared to teach the subject. Locally, Gov. Nathan Deal has pushed to better align what students are taught in school with the job market, by allowing certain high school computer science courses to count as core courses in high school and for college admission.

“All students should know some basics of computer science, even if they aren’t planning to go to college,” Ericson said. “Computing has changed the way we live, work and play and will continue to do so.”