They Ain’t Making Any More of Them: The Great Engineering Shortage of 2012

Editor’s note: This post is authored by guest contributor Jon Bischke. Jon is a founder of Entelo and is an advisor to several startups. You can follow Jon on Twitter here.

Corner any up-and-coming Kevin Systrom wanna-be and have a heart-to-heart about the challenges of building a successful company and at some point you’ll likely wander into the territory of bemoaning how tough it is to hire people with technical skills. At a party recently a startup founder told me “If you could find me five great engineers in the next 90 days I’d pay you $400,000.” Which is crazy talk. Unless you stop to consider that Instagram’s team (mostly engineers) was valued at almost $80 million per employee or that corporate development heads often value engineers at startups they are acquiring at a half-million to million dollars per person. $400,000 actually might not be so crazy for a basketball lineup’s worth of guys who can sling Ruby or Scala code.

So with all this widespread talk about the value of hiring great engineers and the apparent dearth of technical talent in the market, college students must be signing up to computer science classes in droves. This is the next California Gold Rush is it not? The era in which a self-taught programmer can emerge from relative obscurity and land a mid-nine figure payday. Engineering enrollments surely must be at an all-time high?

Au contraire, mon frère. Consider this (from the Marginal Revolution blog):

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago!

Coding is as hot as it’s ever been and yet we graduated more students with CSci degrees in The Year of Our Orwell as we do today? What’s going on here exactly? A little more from the same blog post:

In 2009 the U.S. graduated 89,140 students in the visual and performing arts, more than in computer science, math and chemical engineering combined and more than double the number of visual and performing arts graduates in 1985.

We are raising a generation of American Idols and So You Think You Can Dancers when what we really need is a generation of Gateses and Zuckerbergs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (PDF download) computer and mathematical occupations are expected to add 785,700 new jobs from 2008 to 2018. It doesn’t take a math major to see that we’re graduating students at a far lower rate than required to meet demand.

But what’s important is not just what is happening but also why it’s happening. If there’s both security on the downside (computer science majors experience rock-bottom unemployment rates) and untold riches on the upside, it seems the rational economic choice for people to flock to majoring in computer science and engineering. And yet, that’s not what’s taking place.

Let’s look at a few of many theories as to why people might be choosing to study drama and music instead of C++ and algorithms.

People don’t get excited by technology. The glamour and glitz of Hollywood that attracts thousands of Midwestern prom queens every year is undeniable. And the stereotype of the lone coder sitting alone in a cube somewhere can’t quite match up to the thrill, however unlikely, of one day performing in front of Steven, Randy and Jennifer.

But that doesn’t seem entirely logical. After all, Sorkin did his best to put nerds front and center with The Social Network and show the rags-to-riches possibilities associated with tech entrepreneurship, at least to the extent that you’re allowed to ever consider a Harvard undergrad as a “rags-worthy” starting point. Furthermore, you need look no further than the Forbes 400 to see alpha geeks racing yachts and buying sports teams. And of course there has never been a time in history when technology was more ubiquitous, with all of us carrying an incredibly powerful computing device in our pockets.

Technology is hard. OK, now perhaps we’re getting a little closer to the truth. It’s not that learning how to program has gotten noticeably more difficult over the years. If anything, frameworks like Rails for Ruby make it easier. But there is a basic level of understanding that, if you don’t have it, drastically reduces the likelihood that you’ll become an engineer.

Indeed, at each level of our education there’s a chance to miss out on fundamental knowledge that, if not acquired at that point, becomes progressively more difficult to pick up later in life. Salman Khan said it best in his TED talk that should be mandatory viewing:

“…you fast forward and good students start failing algebra all of a sudden and start failing calculus all of a sudden, despite being smart, despite having good teachers, and it’s usually because they have these Swiss cheese gaps that kept building throughout their foundation.”

There’s likely, in part at least, an education challenge here. But it’s doesn’t appear to be just that. There’s something else important here.

There’s little incentive, early in one’s career, to choose to go into computer science or engineering. At the time you’re choosing your career path, say around 20 years of age, you often haven’t fully digested that the rational economic choice for your studies is something in the STEM disciplines. And when all things are the same “price” (i.e., a degree in the humanities costs the same as a degree in engineering) if you don’t internalize that the net present value of that diploma with a computer science major is significantly greater than the net present value of that diploma with a drama major then maybe drama isn’t such an irrational choice.

Therein lies the problem. If a drama major costs society substantially more than a computer science major (e.g., drama majors pay less taxes, draw more unemployment benefits, etc.) then perhaps a drama major should be more expensive than a computer science major? While this sounds, no pun intended, dramatic, it’s worthwhile to consider that China is canceling majors they don’t deem to have good employment prospects.

Or maybe there isn’t a big problem here after all. Before we completely overhaul the incentive process around how students choose their major perhaps there’s another thing worth considering and that’s the rise of self-directed learning services and websites such as Codecademy, CodeLesson, General Assembly, Dev Bootcamp, Treehouse and Udemy (Disclosure: I’m an advisor to Udemy) make the lower numbers of college graduates with computer science degrees less disconcerting. After all, the important thing is that people are acquiring these skills, not necessarily that they are majoring in the discipline.

There is a lot to think about here and no easy answers but a dialogue on the topic seems important. After all, some of the most innovative companies on the planet are starved for talent while at the same time job prospects for new college graduates are pretty bleak. What will it take to resolve that paradox?