1 Students Choice of Information Technology Majors and Careers: A Qualitative Study Claire R. McInerney Nicole C. DiDonato Rebecca Giagnacova Angela M. O Donnell Researchers conducted focus group interviews with 54 undergraduate university students majoring in computer science (CS), computer engineering (CE), and information technology and informatics (ITI) to determine why students choose a particular information technology (IT) related major and an IT career. Results suggest that students in the study who chose IT majors and careers were influenced by positive experiences in high school, interest in computing, an aptitude for math and physics, perceived job prestige, the expectation of a good salary, the encouragement of family members, and the influence of a key individual such as a teacher or work supervisor. In the interviews, students also expressed opinions related to the job market, prospective salaries, career obstacles and rewards. This research is significant because results can possibly influence the recruitment, retention, and career preparation of potential IT workers, an employment sector that has a shortage of qualified, well-educated employees. In the United States there has been a pervasive concern about the need for and number of individuals available for the information technology (IT) work force. Policy makers, corporate managers, and university administrators note that the number of students preparing for careers in IT is dropping or staying static (Erickson, 2005; Fischman, 2007; Margolis & Fisher, 2002; Wilson, 2002). The lack of women in IT positions and the IT pipeline is of specific concern, because a potential talent pool may be unavailable to contribute to the knowledge industries of the twenty-first century (Erickson, 2005). In 2002, the number of students pursuing doctorates in computer science (CS) in the top 50 U.S. universities ranked by the National Science Foundation fell to the lowest number in 12 years, and only 26% of those degrees went to women. Similarly, in 2002, earned Ph.D. degrees awarded in electrical engineering in the top U.S. universities dropped to the lowest it had been in 16 years, with women earning only 15% of those degrees (Nelson, 2005). A reverse migration of men and women with technology-related degrees to Asia, particularly India, is also occurring (Friedman, 2005). International students who may have studied in the U.S. and remained in the country after completing a degree now have opportunities in their home countries in programming, technology support, and other ITrelated jobs. In the past few years, international students attracted to IT departments in the U.S. Claire McInerney is Associate Professor, Library and Information Science Department, School of Communication, Information and Library Studies, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Nicole DiDonato is Doctoral Candidate, Educational Psychology Program, Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rebecca Giagnacova is Doctoral Candidate, Clinical Psychology Program, Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Angela O Donnell is Professor, Educational Psychology Program, Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Information Technology, Learning, and Performance Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2 35
2 36 McInerney, DiDonato, Giagnacova & O Donnell have found the process of emigration increasingly difficult, resulting in a decrease in the number of international students earning technology degrees in the U.S. (Foster, 2005). The purpose of the research reported here was to learn why students choose an IT-related major as undergraduates, why they aspire to IT careers, what benefits and challenges they anticipate in IT work, and whether work experiences while enrolled in a university influence their choices of major and career. A convenience sample of volunteers majoring in the IT-related fields computer science (CS), computer engineering (CE), and information technology and informatics (ITI)) participated in the study. A concerted effort was made to reach students who had IT work experience among a population of students from three different campuses of the university by advertising through the campus computing service discussion list. This paper reports on the results of group interviews, and it is hoped that the results of the research can offer data and information for those interested in recruiting, retaining, and encouraging students interest in IT careers. Background Traditionally, CS and CE are the IT-related majors offered to university students in the US. Since 1992, however, faculty have designed alternative IT curricula to meet the needs of IT careers in industry. The Rochester Institute of Technology (Subramaniam, 2005), the University of Cincinnati (Said et al., 2004), The University of Northern Colorado (Isaacson & Auter, 2000), a consortium of colleges in Georgia (Dehoney et al., 2003), and other schools have created curricula that include the social aspects of technology, project management, team building, legal and ethical issues, and human factors topics. Alternative IT careers are those that may not include programming and networking tasks, but still involve IT applications. In this context the phrase alternative degree programs refers to majors that diverge from the traditional CS or CE courses in programming and data structures, and may include courses in organizational soft skills such as time management, and public speaking (Ecker, Caudill, Hoctor, & Meyer, 2004). Faculty and staff design these programs after conducting literature reviews in business and CS publications and by holding interviews with industry experts and representatives of professional organizations like the Information Technology Association of America, Association of Computer Machinery, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Information Association of America, and others to determine the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for a broad range of IT-related careers. The academic major most closely representing an alternative IT major investigated in this paper is the ITI degree program in which some participants were enrolled. Research Questions We were interested in having conversations with students to learn about perceptions of their chosen majors and careers. We selected group interviews, or focus groups, as the research method for the study because they promote indepth interactive discussions. Compared to traditional interviews, focus groups allow for greater depth of understanding and increased spontaneity, because comments from one person may stimulate responses from others (Emerson & Maddox, 1997; Quible, 1998). By eliciting different perceptions and points of view from key stakeholders, focus groups allow for discovery, benchmarking, evaluating, and verifying perceptions, feelings, opinions and thoughts (Patton, 1990; Quible, 1998). To encourage multiple perspectives, the researchers used the following research questions to guide the focus group discussions: 1. What are the factors that influence students to choose an IT-related major? 2. How do students in different IT-related majors perceive their coursework, the skills they are learning, how their prior experiences have prepared them for an IT major, and how their major differs from other IT majors? 3. What are students career expectations including advantages to an IT career, work appeal, salary expectations, challenges, and
3 Students Choice of Information Technology Majors and Careers 37 barriers to advancement such as glass ceilings and outsourcing? 4. How does work experience influence the choice of major? Details on the research methodology and the results of the answers students provided to questions in the group interviews, as well as an analysis of the responses, will follow. First, it is useful to look at other studies about influences on career decisions. Related Literature Influences on Career Choice A career decision can be affected by experiences in life, deeply held values, self-knowledge, selfefficacy, and knowledge of careers (Niles & Harris-Bowlsbey, 2002). This section of the paper explores career choice theory, self-efficacy theory, and specific research studies related to choosing a career in the IT work sector. A body of research based on self-efficacy, an aspect of Bandura s social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986; Bandura, Barbaranelli, Vittorio, & Pastorelli, 2001), indicates that students are affected by their own beliefs about their ability to perform tasks successfully and that these beliefs directly influence their choice of goals and subsequent task performance. It is not surprising that students will choose a major in college based on courses in which they did well in high school. If students experience success with computing, it is reasonable to assume that they may seek majors and careers in IT. These concepts were further refined in Lent and colleagues social cognitive career theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994, 1999), and Smith s research on academic performance in IT (2002). Woolnough and Guo (1997) conducted a multinational study to discern factors that affect students career choice in science and engineering fields. This study was motivated by a concern that able students are dropping out of science-related majors, which, in turn, has had an impact on the social and economic life of each country represented in the study. The authors found several unifying themes or factors across six nations that affect students career choice. The major factors that emerged from this research on science career decisions included the quality of science teaching, supportive mathematics teaching, and school science courses that are intellectually stimulating and offered at an appropriate level of difficulty. In this context, supportive mathematics teaching means classes where the teachers were especially supportive in offering help to students to assist in their understanding of mathematical concepts. Other influential factors included involvement in science competitions and expectations of job satisfaction, status, and salary in a science-related profession. Not surprisingly, researchers found that having a science-related hobby at home was very influential in choosing a science or engineering career. Similarly, a study of 1,000 high school students conducted at a university in Brazil found five underlying factors that influenced students choice of an undergraduate major: liking the activity, family influence, previous experience in the field, access to information about the field, and the state of the job market related to the field (Alchieri & Charczuk, 2003). In addition, they found that males attributed choice of major to family influence most often, while female students cited liking the activity related to a college major most often (Alchieri & Charczuk, 2003). These motivational factors also influenced vocational counseling and students decision-making processes. Another study explored what students and teachers consider effective recruitment techniques, and what factors influenced students to enter technology education fields. Results of the analysis of 34 student questionnaires suggested that most students made the decision to enter a career field while in high school as opposed to making a career decision after enrolling at a university (Gray & Daugherty, 2004). In results from a survey of first year and senior college students, Heckert and Wallis (1998) found that first year students and seniors differed in their expectations of future jobs. First year college students were more likely to expect that a future job would be related to their degree.
4 38 McInerney, DiDonato, Giagnacova & O Donnell They were also more likely to expect to earn a graduate degree, and anticipated a higher starting salary than college seniors. Heckert and Wallis (1998) attribute differences in expectations to seniors being less naïve about what to expect in the work world compared to first year students. Challenges and Barriers to a Career in IT Swanson and Woitke s (1997) concrete definition of a career barrier is an event or condition, either within the person or in his or her environment, that make career progress difficult (p. 446). Smith (2004) suggests that women in technology-related fields face particular barriers that are viewed as contextual factors that claim restrictions to their career aspirations and add to the ability-achievement gap (p. 49). In a survey of 247 IT majors conducted twice a year for two years, students were asked about their perceptions of career barriers. The results show that students were optimistic about career opportunities overall, believing that barriers were unlikely to affect them (Smith, 2004). There were some differences among subgroups of students, though. Women and minority students of both genders perceived barriers that were distinct from those of mainstream male students. Female students were concerned about finding a career, adequate job performance, and balancing work and family responsibilities. Similarly, minority students perceived finding a job and adequate job performance to be major obstacles, as compared to non-minority IT majors. These personal responses to perceived barriers are important research outcomes because they show why some students might shy away from certain career choices (Smith, 2004). Women and minorities who have high abilities may think that they will not be hired, will not be able to perform adequately, or may not be able to balance work at home and in the workplace, creating the possibility that they will not even try to enter certain career paths. The abilities of these students may not lead to achievement because of perceived barriers. Gender and Career Choice in IT Women held only 20% of IT jobs in 1995, and according to the Department of Education, women earned only 17% of bachelor s degrees in CE, 9% of the bachelor s degrees in engineeringrelated technology fields, and 28% of the degrees in computer or information sciences (American Association of University Women [AAUW], 2000, as cited in Turner, Bernt, & Pecora, 2002). These percentages have not increased in the last ten years. In fact, American women s interest in CS fell 80% between 1998 and 2004; in 2004, the Higher Education Research Institute found that only 0.3% of incoming freshmen college women expressed an interest in majoring in CS (Foster, 2005). American male students interest in CS has also declined; in 1999, 6.6% of incoming male students considered a major in CS, and in 2004, 2.8% of the male freshmen class expressed an interest in the field (UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, as cited in Foster, 2005). These numbers are somewhat alarming considering that the U.S. Commerce Department reports that 70.2% of all vacant positions in science and CE from , a total of 1.6 million jobs, will be in IT (U.S. Commerce Department, as cited in Foster, 2005). Turner et al. (2002) report that women s choice of IT careers is greatly influenced by when a woman first used a computer, her parents occupations, and the influence of significant people in her life such as mentors, teachers, and family members. In addition, women who had undergraduate degrees in IT were influenced by taking an introduction to programming course in high school, other high school computing courses, or by having a love of math. Many of the successful women in the study were first introduced to computers in school, and they took seriously the encouragement or discouragement of their teachers in high school and college (Turner et al., 2002). Similarly, in their research at Carnegie Mellon University, Margolis and Fisher (2002) found that women enter IT fields because they are successful in math and science, enjoy problem solving and doing puzzles, and/or
5 Students Choice of Information Technology Majors and Careers 39 because they took a programming class and enjoyed it. Salary Expectations as an Influence on Career Choice The Institute of Industrial Engineers (1999) conducted an Internet survey of over 5,000 college seniors across 51 majors who reported their expected earnings in their first jobs. At $42,173 per year, CE students reported the highest anticipated pay, CS majors reported $38,960, and Information Science students expected a salary of $36,081. These data were concordant with the responses given by the participants in the university research reported here. As the subsequent discussion of the study shows, salaries predicted by students are quite a bit lower than salaries actually paid to IT professionals when the research took place. Methodology Group interviews were chosen as the preferred research method, because group interviews, or focus groups, are recommended for exploratory studies and to promote interactive discussion among stakeholders (Jarrell, 2000). In addition, the method has been used effectively to evaluate academic programs and to plan new programs (Villard, 2003). They are a practical way to conduct face-to-face interviews in a short period with limited research staff. Interviewing is one of the prime methodologies used in qualitative studies where researchers have the opportunity to probe, clarify, and ask follow up questions along a line of inquiry. According to Creswell (1998), qualitative research is an inquiry process of understanding based on distinct methodological traditions of inquiry that explore a social or human problem (p. 15). In qualitative research, the researcher attempts to create a holistic description of a natural setting that captures the complexities, details, and real life perspectives of the participants (Creswell, 1998). Since we were particularly interested in rich detail and the genuine perspectives of students in an exploratory study, we chose to employ qualitative inquiry. Participants in the group interviews consisted of 54 traditional age undergraduate students in three IT-related majors, CS, CE, and ITI, at a large public research university in the Northeast U.S. Computer Science is a traditional major that includes multiple courses in programming, data structures, algorithms, computer architecture, and operating systems. The CE degree is linked with electrical engineering; consequently, the curriculum includes courses in systems and system engineering, signal processing, communication theory and networks, circuits, computer visualization, and computer architecture. The ITI degree is a hybrid or alternative program, including some programming courses (Java, XML, SQL) and other technology skills, such as database design, web design, networking, e-commerce, and information visualization along with human factors skills such as management, information policy and politics, social informatics, technology and learning, and knowledge management. Students were recruited through flyers placed in classroom buildings where the major classes are held, as well as announcements in classes and through electronic distribution lists. Participants were given a small cash stipend for their participation. Two doctoral students from the Graduate School of Education interviewed students in small groups of men and women, segregated by major. Homogeneous groups of majors were organized to prevent a struggle for common ground, and to encourage all participants to contribute candidly (Merton, Fiske, & Kendall, 1956). Interviews were held on the campus where the students took courses in their major. Consistent with Asbury (1995), groups consisting of 2 to 10 members were small enough so that everyone could participate and interact easily. One student was interviewed individually. See Table 1. Interviews are often the most labor intensive type of research used to elicit opinions and determine attitudes. Group interviews require protocol preparation, room setup, a facilitator to conduct the interview, and someone who records responses or operates the digital recorder. The digital data must be transcribed into text, and, subsequently, the textual data must be coded and
6 40 McInerney, DiDonato, Giagnacova & O Donnell Table 1. Computer Science (CS), Computer Engineering (CE), and Information Technology & Informatics (ITI) Majors Interviewed in Academic Major Number of Interviewees Gender Count (Male/Female) CS 5 4/1 CS 5 3/2 CE 10 8/2 CE 5 4/1 CE 9 6/3 ITI 9 7/2 ITI 4 3/1 ITI 2 1/1 ITI 4 3/1 ITI 1 1/0 Total Male /14 Female analyzed. Due to the time involved, a typical sample will consist of five or six focus groups with 5 to 10 people in each group. Although samples are smaller than those in survey research, the data gathered in group interviews provide rich detail through personal stories that represent feelings, perceptions, and attitudes. We followed the steps described here in the study. The interviewers used a consistent protocol of questions in each of the 10 sessions. Survey questions were based on the research questions, and were suggested through a review of the literature and similar studies, as well as career choice theory and social cognitive theory. Although one of our concerns was the small number of women in IT programs, no questions addressed the issue of gender directly in the interviews, allowing students to broach the subject of gender of their own accord. As suggested by Emerson and Maddox (1997), using a focus group is an excellent method to allow stakeholder participants to identify issues that are important to them. The graduate students and one faculty researcher transcribed the audiotaped interviews and analyzed the data to determine common themes in the responses. Consistent with grounded theory methodology (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), the researchers performed open coding, that is, reading each transcript and ascribing subject categories to each paragraph. Categories were developed after open and axial coding in accordance with Strauss and Corbin (1998). After reading all transcripts and analyzing the categories, the keywords were synthesized into a list of categories related to the research questions. The coding categories that emerged from the interview narratives were related to the questions and, as indicated below, the code words or phrases were shortcuts for more elaborate concepts. Inter-coder reliability was tested and determined to be acceptable (90%) after several tests and briefings were held to train the researchers to code consistently with each other. The codes emerged from the manual coding of the data, and then were inserted into NVivo, a content analysis program. The software allowed for a more in depth, consistent, and comprehensive review of the data across the interviews of CS, CE and ITI students. Codes were developed to relate to the interview questions and categories as follows: 01 Major choice 1.1 family 1.2 hardware 1.3 high school courses 1.4 math and science 1. 5 programming + (positive aspects of programming) 1.6 programming (negative aspects of programming) 1.7 interest in computers 1.8 worked with computers (includes prior experience) 1.9 prestige or salary 1.10 other 02 Skills 2.1 study 2.2 work ethic 2.3 interpersonal 2.4 leadership 2.5 persistence 2.6 technical 2.7 self-management (includes stress management) 2.8 problem solving 2.9 self-learning 2.10 teamwork 2.11 writing 03 Single most important skill (see above)
7 Students Choice of Information Technology Majors and Careers Difficulty of courses 05 Preparation and experience 5.1 work 5.2 helping others with computing 5.3 courses 06 Compare majors 07 Career options 6.1 business 6.2 web design 6.3 hardware work 6.4 software work 6.5 teaching 6.6 help desk 6.7 government 6.8 food industry 6.9 research and development 6.10 other 08 Attractiveness of career 09 First job (see career options above) 10 Salary 10.1 $25 30K 10.2 $30 40K 10.3 $40 50K 10.4 $50 60K 10.5 $60K and over 11 Career barriers or obstacles 12 IT industry downturn or outsourcing 13 Influence of university computing job The next section will discuss results from questions posed to the student participants. Results The following narrative summarizes the responses and themes that emerged from the coded results data. Students in all three majors indicated that they chose their major because they had a strong interest in computers and the general field of technology. Although all students expressed an interest in technology, answers about curricula and careers differed among the various majors. Computer engineering majors said that a strong interest in math and physics was a major determinant for choosing this major. One CE student noted, I like CE because we get a lot of experience with physics and math. That s what I wanted. Other CE students chose the major because they enjoyed dealing with the hardware side of computers rather than programming computers. One student commented, I actually like dealing with hardware. I like to build my own hardware pieces, so I chose this field. Finally, other CE students said that encouragement by family members and job prestige were influential in choosing their major; however, responses related to family and prestige were not as frequent as interest in math and/or computers. Computer science students responses differed from CE students in two ways. First, CS students said that an interest and a proficiency in programming were primary motivations for choosing this major. A CS student remarked, I always liked CS and technology. I am really good at programming. I keep up with technology. I always read the [IT] news. In addition, several students in the CS groups took an advanced placement programming class in high school, and this encouraged them to continue CS at the college level. One student commented, The kicker was going into college. I had taken AP computers in high school, and I did well on the AP exam, and it got me credit here at the university. It was something I was doing over summers at organizations just working on websites or publishing. This comment illustrates how the ability to take computer courses in high school and the opportunity to work in an IT field influenced students to choose CS as a major. Not many students had paid IT work experience before entering the university, but all had enjoyed playing around with computers. Others stated that they enjoyed the challenge of the course work in CS and the prospect of a well-paying job after graduation. Information technology informatics majors expressed a strong interest in computers, but chose this major because it was less programming-intensive. One group member stated, I am interested in computers and technology, but I am not good at programming, while another student added, I just joined because I wanted to go into the CS field, but the CS department here focuses more on programming than I liked, so I figured I d just go with ITI because it focused more on networking and web design. All of the ITI majors said that
8 42 McInerney, DiDonato, Giagnacova & O Donnell they enjoyed the people-centered aspect of the major and the flexibility it allowed for choosing course work. I feel like it s a more human version of CS, said one student. There s more of a look at technology and how it s used in the business world. And that s more interesting to me than just programming. Finally, many ITI students took technology classes in high school, which inspired them to continue with technology at the college level. One student noted, I had a lot of program languages in high school. That is how I got interested in computers. However, I don t like the programming aspect of it for the rest of my life. I like the people-centered version of it. And I felt that this [ITI major] gave me a people-centered view of computers. Table 2 summarizes the main reasons students cited for choosing a particular major. While CE and CS responses focused on technical skills, ITI majors cited interpersonal skills as most important to success in their major. The CE students said that math, problem solving, and analytical skills are important. Computer engineering student responses also indicated that it was imperative to keep updated on the latest technologies for success in the major as well as in a CE career. One student noted, To be successful in this major you have to keep updating yourself with new technology and try to learn new software and market yourself properly. Basically, you should have very good analytical skills and problem solving skills, and you should be good in math, definitely. Another student noted that self-motivated learning and the ability to teach oneself the material are necessary to succeed in this major. He remarked, They [the professors] assumed you learned it [a programming language] in another class when maybe you haven t. So you have to be able to teach yourself a lot of things and very quickly to get by. Computer engineering requires hard work and good time management skills, which the engineers also said were important to their success. Computer science students regarded expert problem-solving skills as necessary for success in this major. One student noted, Problem solving abilities you have to be able to recognize patterns, because there s a lot of math. Once you stop doing the serious programming in CS, you have to take very specialized math classes. You can write a program, but if you can t understand how to prove that it s going to be correct all the time, then you can t really trust it to do its job. Others noted that proficiency in math and programming and having leadership ability were also necessary to be successful in a computing career. Information technology and informatics majors noted that interpersonal skills such as the ability to communicate and work effectively with other people were crucial to success in the major. An ITI student explained, [One must be] good with people. Everything around this major has to do with people, and their interactions with the software and hardware. One student commented that, [One must be able to] think creatively, use logical reasoning and the ability to write effectively, because everyone asks you to write about things not just code to explain it in words. Others said that organizational skills and the ability to adapt to new situations are important skills to possess in an ITI major. A summary of the skills students perceive as necessary for their major is shown in Table 3. Overall, answers in the most important skill category mirrored the responses given in the Table 2. Reasons for Choosing Major Mentioned in Group Interviews* CS CE ITI Family Members and Friends Interest in Computers Like/ Good at Math Good Job Opportunities Anticipate good salary Like/ Good at IT Good at Programming Advanced Placement Courses Challenge High School Classes Intro to Computing Classes No Programming People Centered Major Prestige Dealing with the Hardware Multifaceted Curriculum Job Experiences * Numbers equal total number of responses from students in a specific major.
9 Students Choice of Information Technology Majors and Careers 43 Table 3. Skills Students See as Necessary for Success in Majors* Skills CS CE ITI Ability to learn new technology Analytical skills and Problem Solving Programming Self learning Mathematics Networking Leadership Organization Interpersonal Adaptability Logical reasoning Writing Patience Study skills/ Hard work Working in Groups Time Management * Numbers represent the number of students who named a particular skill as important in their chosen profession. overall skills category. Computer engineering students responded that programming, keeping up with changes in technology, problem-solving abilities, interest in the material, and proficiency in math are the skills necessary to be successful in their major. Computer science majors said that programming was the most important skill necessary to a CS major. Finally, ITI majors expressed the need for people skills, the ability to write, and time management skills as those most important for the ITI major. In general, technology majors expressed the opinion that they had a harder course load than liberal arts majors. However, the reasons differed among majors. Computer engineering students said that their major was difficult because of the amount of work required for each class. One student noted, with others concurring, Just, I guess the amount of material that is covered. Oftentimes, you have to take a lot of credits and a lot of classes. And labs, they take up a lot of your time. Others said that the difficulty depended on the professor who teaches the course. A student explained, The professors are there to do research. Getting help from them is very difficult. The work that we have to do is just very hard to do on your own. Computer science students noted that the amount of work for each course and the teacher who taught a particular course influenced its difficulty. For example, one student noted, I think the toughest part is also that it s very, very time consuming. I ve been here sometimes really late. And [there are] time constraints and exams coming up. It s a lot of pressure. I think that because most of the professors here do their own research, and they expect you to know a lot more than you really do. Computer science majors also commented that the major is difficult because the exams are tricky. One student commented, I don t think the material is difficult, but the exams are tricky, so that is what makes the courses difficult. Others also commented that the material is too conceptual and not practical enough to prepare students for a real job. One student said, I don t think the university prepares you for the real world at all. I think it prepares you for research. When I talk to friends from India, they know a lot more than I know. A lot of the deep programming, I had to teach myself. Overall, ITI majors said that their major was not as difficult as a traditional CS major. Several students commented, I think the courses are a little easier compared to other technology majors. Several ITI students noted that it is not the work that is challenging, but the amount of work required for each class that makes the major difficult. One student noted, Honestly, the work isn t difficult, I hate to say that a lot of the work is busy work. The volume of work is difficult, but not the actual work. If you don t have IT skills, like basic skills, it could be a lot harder. Another student added, The volume of work is difficult. It really depends on the professor; they maybe don t clarify what they are looking for and leave the assignment a little vague you need a lot a patience to go through all the readings. Some felt that the work is easier because they enjoy doing it, while others added that it depended on the instructor.
10 44 McInerney, DiDonato, Giagnacova & O Donnell Some technology majors took classes in high school that inspired them to continue with technology at the university level. Other students received Advanced Placement credits that allowed them to place out of an introductory CS course and begin taking upper level classes during their first year at the university. Another common response was that students had exposure to computers at a young age. Several CE students said that they had no prior experiences that helped them to choose this major. One student confessed, I was not that prepared for this major, I just wanted to do it because there is more opportunity in this field than in other fields. I was not really into computers, but I was good in math and physics. This student noted that his knowledge, skills, and self-efficacy in math and physics made CE a logical choice. Some ITI students had experience working informally for family members or neighbors and helping them with their computers while in high school, but like the other majors, work experience was neither extensive nor pervasive among the ITI students. When asked to compare their major to other IT programs, the students surveyed seemed to agree upon a hierarchy of academic difficulty. They ranked CE as the most difficult major, followed by CS, and then ITI. The consensus was also that CS has a marked emphasis on programming, and CE has more emphasis on hardware. ITI was viewed as dealing more with the business or management side of IT. As one CS student said, I think as far as academic programs go, CS is easier than CE. Cause for every semester I could take like two CS classes and then graduate in four years. But every semester in CE I would have to take five technical classes that are the same difficulty as my two CS classes. So I think CE has a lot more work. The students in the CE major said that learning about hardware distinguished the major from the other IT majors. These students also said that they shared many of the same skills as the other majors, primarily programming. Computer science majors said that their major was distinct because of a marked emphasis on programming. Students in the ITI major described it as less math and more humanistic, marked by smaller class size, and a broader approach to how people use computers in business settings. Information technology and informatics students said that their major had a slower approach to learning about computers than CS. They also characterized their major as being more human focused than CS and CE, with special emphasis placed on teamwork as an important aspect of the major. Students in ITI believe that their major provides diverse learning experiences. They describe ITI as more flexible, allowing for multiple ways to arrive at a solution, whereas they viewed CS as more rigid. Computer engineering majors were concrete in their descriptions of the types of career options open to them. They also believed that this degree gives them great versatility, and were aware of more specific career areas to pursue than students in other majors. The CE career options listed included designing computer software in fields such as biomedicine, software test engineering, computer consulting, designing websites, accounting, technical analysis, electrical or other engineering fields, and working in management. Several students also felt that a bachelor s degree in CE would help them in other career paths, such as pursuing a business or law degree. Computer science majors focused more on how the economy affects the job market and the availability of jobs. They were more pessimistic in this regard as compared to the other two majors. Several students endorsed going on to graduate school as a career option, as they did not know what kinds of jobs would be available after graduation. Other careers mentioned for CS students included programming, conducting research, designing websites, customer service, repairing hardware, troubleshooting, publishing, consulting, teaching, and managing databases. The ITI majors believe that they can do anything. They say their training gives them the flexibility to work at various levels ranging from teacher, business analyst, and web designer, to chief executive officer.
11 Students Choice of Information Technology Majors and Careers 45 When asked about the attractiveness of their chosen career paths, each student group found the jobs in their fields to be somewhat appealing. People from all three majors indicated that jobs in their field offered flexibility. However, CS majors admitted that not all of the jobs in the field are highly attractive. For example, one student stated, I don t know if you want to sit and drudge through databases for the rest of your life. Another student noted, It s [having a CS degree] the easiest way to be self-employed. Computer engineering and ITI majors gave similar responses; both groups were attracted to the money-earning potential of jobs in IT, as well as flexibility and having a job that you like. Asking students about their first jobs and starting salaries prompted a range of responses. Salaries listed by CE majors ranged from $30,000 to $60,000. On average, ITI majors anticipated the broadest range of salaries for their first jobs, from $25,000 to $70,000 per year, while CS majors were slightly more conservative in their estimates of from $20,000 to $50,000. Students were close to correct in estimating salaries in some job categories, but were far off the mark in others. The Computerworld Salary Survey of 2004, to which over 10,000 IT professionals responded, presented a fairly comprehensive annual picture of salaries across positions in various IT industries. In 2004, the year the research was conducted, most salaries were substantially above those predicted by the student research participants. For example, CS and CE students interested in programming thought they would earn $40,000 to $55,000 per year, but Computerworld reported that the average programmer s salary was $62,008 with an average bonus equaling $3,592 per year. CS students interested in database design said they would probably earn a yearly salary from $40,000 to $50,000, but the Computerworld survey indicated that the average total compensation for database designers, including a year end bonus, was $81,710. According to Computerworld, a network administrator in 2004 could expect to earn on average $53,644 including a bonus, but the ITI students estimated that they would earn $35,000 to $40,000 in this job category. Only entry-level technicians and some help desk workers in certain industries earned compensation in the $40,000 per year range according to the survey; however, students commonly named a figure in the $40,000 range in anticipation of a job salary in several categories. It is clear from the Computerworld survey that salaries and bonuses in the industry are higher, on average, than students anticipated (Collett, 2004). Table 4 summarizes types of first jobs and salaries students expected to have upon graduation. With respect to challenges, each group of students shared similar concerns. A major theme in the responses was difficulty in securing a job. Computer engineering majors believed the market was saturated; CS majors noted simply job scarcity among their responses. Information technology and informatics majors cited outsourcing, a theme that was echoed in answers to other questions. Another theme across the majors was keeping up with changing technology by learning on one s own. Both CE and ITI majors were sensitive to company budget restraints that restrict jobs or job function. Computer engineering majors were unique in their responses regarding stress and time management as key challenges in developing a career in this area. Information technology and informatics majors expressed concerns about getting and keeping jobs and convincing companies that their work is valuable. These students also expressed concerns about the cost and perceived benefits of IT investments. When considering difficulties that will arise in their technology-related careers, students from CE, CS, and ITI programs all expressed the fear of outsourcing, that is, sending IT jobs to independent workers, consulting companies, or offshore organizations. The emphasis given to outsourcing by the North American media may account for this response, or students personally may have received technology assistance from help desk staff in Asia. Whatever the reason, students expressed concerns about the outsourcing trend and the impact outsourcing will have on their careers.
12 46 McInerney, DiDonato, Giagnacova & O Donnell Table 4. Computer Science (CS), Computer Engineering (CE), and Information Technology & Informatics (ITI) Majors Job Expectations CS CE ITI Job Type Salary Job Type Salary Job Type Salary Graduate school Low No idea Web designer 45-50K Whatever is available. Can t tell in this market Research & Development 50-55K Publishing company 20K Nothing to do with Graphic design 50-55K computers Consulting 20K Fast food industry 45-60K Unemployed 50-55K Database Management 40-50K Designing websites 45-60K Information Administrator 70K Website design 40-50K Technology analyst 45-60K I don t feel qualified for 70K any job Entry-level programming 40-50K Computer Consultant 40K Business Analyst 30-40K Government job 35-38K Don t know, don t care Human interaction side 25-30K (defense) Company with private 40-50K Circuits electrical Variety of jobs 30-40K defense contract engineering 40K Project manager 55K Help Desk 35K Hardware and software 55K Tech support 35-40K together Programming 55K Network Administrator 35-40K Technical job 55K Government tech support 45K Management 55K Discussion and Analysis The interview results provided answers to the research questions, some being consistent with previous research and other findings providing surprises. This section of the paper will discuss the results and will connect the data to the research questions and to the related research literature. By and large, students in the study chose ITrelated majors and careers because they enjoyed working with computers, networking, online interactions, and, for CS students, programming. Computer science and CE students said they look forward to working in an area where they have a keen and abiding interest: working with computers and computer programs. One CS student said that he just liked to have fun with the technology. We are just big kids, he offered. Students expressed the satisfaction and rewards one receives from finishing a project that helps someone get something done. This kind of project work in solving problems was recognized by students across the three program areas. Although some of the CS students said they liked programming and wanted to work as programmers when they graduated, others said that the best thing about a career in CS would be the enjoyable aspect of solving problems and fixing processes and procedures to help people get their work done effectively. Although ITI students in the study enjoyed working with computers, they chose ITI because they did not want to be programmers. Students said that success in high school or doing well in introductory university computer courses were also influential factors in choice of major. Just as other researchers found (Bandura & Locke, 2003; Gray & Daugherty, 2004), students said they made career choices even before they entered the university; consequently, one could assume that high school teachers, courses in high school, and secondary school counselors might be keys for an individual s career choice. Sometimes a family member or a high school teacher was significant in steering a student toward IT study and a career, but it was students self-efficacy with computing that was the primary influence according to those interviewed. These findings were consistent with the importance of self-knowledge in career choice as discussed in Niles and Harris-Bowlsbey (2002)
13 Students Choice of Information Technology Majors and Careers 47 and feelings of self-worth and competence discussed by Bandura and Locke (2003). Students in various majors differed in reporting other motivational factors, with ITI majors being emphatic in wanting to avoid programming despite the fact that two programming courses are required for the ITI major. Computer science students see themselves as talented programmers, skilled with technology in general; they anticipated working as programmers after graduation. Computer engineering students said they are motivated by their interest in math. Consistent with results reported by the Institute of Industrial Engineers (1999), CE students in this study anticipate getting higher salaries than CS majors. Although two CE students mentioned a good salary as a motivator, it should be noted that most of the students across majors were not aware of how high compensation can be for IT jobs. In order to recruit more talented IT workers, employers and educators alike could help students become aware of actual salaries being paid. These data are easily accessible, since several professional societies and technology publications perform annual salary surveys (Collett, 2004). Interestingly, students know who they are and how their chosen majors differ from others. Participants perceived CE as the most difficult major, followed by CS and then ITI. Information technology and informatics students indicated that their major requires a great deal of work, some tedious, and some more engaging, but say they are capable of doing it. They clearly did not wish to be programmers, and that is one thing that separates them from CE and CS. CE students liked hardware, and most CS students liked programming and had skills in programming competencies. Information technology and informatics students appeared to be the most optimistic about job possibilities. True to their major, they saw people skills, effective writing, and time management as critical skills for success in the university and in a career. Clearly, CS and CE students believe analytical skills and problem solving are necessary in their fields. Students from both majors mentioned mathematics as being important. Computer engineering and ITI majors both describe the necessity of knowing how to work in groups effectively and becoming adept at time management. Students across majors indicated that they need to learn to learn, because in a technology field they will be expected to acquire new languages, routines, and products on their own. Prior experience with technology in high school or university courses is important for these students. Researchers had assumed that part time jobs that required computing work might also be influential in the choice of major or career. Despite the fact that jobs requiring computer work seem ubiquitous, students seem to seek these jobs primarily after choosing a major. Students saw the technology professions as exciting, ever changing, and fun. Because the field changes, the students did not see themselves getting trapped or stuck as the years go by. One ITI student said she expects to have quite a few unique experiences in her work, and she saw this as extremely positive. The ITI majors viewed their futures as bright ones, because they believe the degree offers flexibility. They look forward to being able to take on a number of types of IT jobs. Information technology and informatics students and CE students anticipated getting paid well for their skills and expertise. All student groups mentioned outsourcing as a major concern. Due to the gap between the need for IT workers and the lower numbers of students choosing these careers (Erickson, 2005; Fischman, 2007; Foster, 2005), it is useful to examine the results from the study related to obstacles or barriers to an IT career. There is evidence in the literature that the outsourcing of IT jobs has caused layoffs in the IT field in the U.S. and other western countries (Rothacker, 2005), but according to The Economist, there will continue to be an IT talent shortage in the U.S. as well as in countries like India and China that supply IT workers ( The next wave, 2005). Jobs being sent offshore include data entry, software application development, administration of paperwork, and call center technology support, but U.S. organizations still need managers and contract
14 48 McInerney, DiDonato, Giagnacova & O Donnell negotiators in order to track and supervise the outsourced work (Wilcocks & Feeny, 2006). Students interviewed did not differentiate among the various kinds of job categories when expressing a fear of outsourcing. To the participants, it appeared that a large portion of IT jobs were being sent abroad, which was a threatening development in light of their own job searches. In their study of the billion dollar, multiyear outsourcing of IT in the Dupont Corporation though, Wilcocks & Feeny found that outsourcing on a massive scale left some significant holes in the organization s IT operation, with IT managers being left out of critical business decisions (2006). The study of Dupont Corporation and other organizations showed that although IT functions can be outsourced successfully, careful attention needs to be paid to leadership and management positions in the home organization (Wilcocks & Feeny, 2006). The students interviewed did not demonstrate a sophisticated knowledge of the intricacies and complexities of the flat world or globalized arena of outsourcing (Friedman, 2005). This lack of knowledge may have played into their fears of not finding a job or of being laid off once employed. McGee (2007) reports that outsourcing can sometimes improve the situation for IT-related jobs. In a survey conducted by the publication, 35% of respondents said that they had expanded or added new responsibilities because of outsourcing, and only 17% reported losing a job or taking a pay cut because of outsourcing. The CS students were reflective about the outsourcing problem, indicating they perceive that a significant differential currently exists between salaries in the U.S., approximately $50,000 to $60,000 per year estimated one student, and those in India, $30,000 per year for a computer scientist, said another student. Even though some companies are outsourcing jobs to Asian countries, one CS student indicated, Eventually the economics will balance out, and there won t be an advantage in going to India. Students worry about the ever-changing nature of technology and the need to keep up. Students from CE, CS, and ITI expressed fears about constantly needing to learn new programs, new systems, and new technology platforms. This fear is coupled with a concern that more recent graduates will have new skills that will eclipse their own expertise. The CE students were somewhat gloomy about the future, and most interviewed admitted they were not going to pursue their dream jobs because of a presumed downturn in IT investment. Some CE students said they would take any job in order to get a foot in the door. These attitudes seem at odds with the fact that CE students saw themselves earning excellent salaries in the $60,000 range; however, their perception of a downturn in IT may tap into the darker scenarios they envisioned. Some of the CE students were pragmatists, indicating that the markets always fluctuate; consequently, one cannot base an academic major decision on what the market is doing at the current moment. Competition had a slightly different face with one ITI student. She saw her gender as an obstacle to success. Similar to the findings by Smith (2004), Margolis and Fisher (2002), and others, this student, like others, saw being female as an inhibitor to advancement in IT work: Being a girl, as unfortunate as it is, I think would be an obstacle. I mean this is the real world, and I know that [gender] would be an obstacle. Besides that just the competition. There are always tons of students coming in willing to work for less and having great experience. The false perception that more and more students are enrolling in IT-related majors and creating more competition for jobs was echoed by CE students who mentioned that the number of retirees in the IT field are fewer than the young people who want to enter IT professions. This number imbalance is perceived to be an obstacle for young graduates who need jobs, according to those who were interviewed. In fact, the number of IT majors and graduates entering the workforce is declining. Fewer students than ever before are majoring in IT fields, causing a shortage in industry IT departments. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the number of newly declared computer-science majors declined 32 percent from the fall of 2000 to the fall of 2004 (Foster, 2005). The same article indicates that IT companies must now work harder to recruit graduating students who have IT skills.
15 Students Choice of Information Technology Majors and Careers 49 Hence, the demand is greater than the supply of IT workers. Students also have the perception that they may have to relocate to get a good or better job as their career progresses, and that they may have to earn an MBA or other degree to advance. Other obstacles mentioned were the need to adapt to changing budget circumstances, and the necessity of managing conflicts among fellow workers and management. Despite the fact that students were wrong when connecting competition for good jobs with increasing numbers of graduates in IT fields, as the number of graduates is actually declining, they were correct when they perceived the ongoing need for people with IT skills. One CS student summed it up well when he said, Today, technology is how we share knowledge. There s always a need. Students in the study chose their major because they enjoy the work and are deeply interested in computers and other information technologies. Business climates and needs change, and many of the student participants understood this. One CS student said that as long as the U.S. is in a war, being a U.S. citizen would be a plus in getting a technology job. He also emphasized that the defense and combat system industry will continue to be healthy as long as the war in Iraq continues. Another student majored in both economics and CS to provide an extra measure of security in getting a job. The remark about the Iraq war was somewhat chilling to the researchers, but it is common knowledge that war has an effect on the economy. Consequently, it is not unreasonable to surmise that there are IT jobs related to technological sophistication and increased IT use in the armed forces. Outsourcing was mentioned again in the context of a downturn in the IT industry. One student said that outsourcing would allow some of the heavy technical work, like programming, to be done in other countries, while in the U.S. management jobs will be available for recent graduates of North American universities. The ITI students were generally positive, saying that they would just remain optimistic and hope for the best. Several CS students said that they are definitely planning to hedge their bets by attending graduate school with the hope that a graduate degree will help them in the search for a job. Not many of the students interviewed had worked formally for university computing services, but most of the students had taken ITrelated jobs on campus through academic departments or with off campus firms after declaring their major. The students who worked in IT-related jobs while in high school said they took the jobs because they liked computing. The jobs themselves did not initiate an interest in IT. The students who worked for university computing services said that the experience had the following advantages: It helped in establishing a network with other CS or IT-related majors. They learned how to handle customer service, even with irate customers. They learned the practical applications involved in troubleshooting. They learned how to draw from the knowledge base developed in classes and apply skills to hardware and software problems. Students talked about an array of experiences working with IT. Some handle routine jobs like uploading software and maintaining the network. Others do more sophisticated work such as designing websites or maintaining databases. Most appreciate the opportunity to get paid and to apply what they have learned in the classroom in a real world environment. Conclusion All students in this study indicated that it was primarily their interest in computers that motivated them to choose an IT-related major and eventually work in an IT-related career. The students see different skills as important to their majors: Computer science and CE students viewed analytic thinking, problem solving, and math skills as critical to success. Information technology and informatics students saw interpersonal skills, writing skills, and logical thinking as key factors to success in their majors.
16 50 McInerney, DiDonato, Giagnacova & O Donnell Computer engineering and ITI students perceived working in groups and time management as especially important in the workplace. Information technology and informatics students were possibly a bit overconfident in their expectations that they could do anything with IT. Their responses, however, clearly indicate that combining courses in technology skills with classes in people and management skills, a new type of IT major, is attractive for students who do not see themselves as highly skilled in math or programming. In career aspirations, CE students imagined the widest variety of careers that would be available to them, and they also had high salary expectations. All student groups were somewhat worried about the trend in U.S. industry to outsource IT work; however, they still hoped to find good jobs that used their abilities to work with computers. As this research shows, none of the students from the three IT-related majors represented in the interviews knew much about the implications of outsourcing on American IT workers, nor did they know how workers relate to the organizations that perform outsourced work. Faculty members and students might do well to study the evolving trend of outsourcing, as it is complex and changing. Outsourcing has displaced some IT jobs in the U.S., but it has also created new positions for managers and negotiators (Friedman, 2005; Rothacker, 2005), and it would be useful to know how to prepare for the different IT positions in the domestic labor market in light of outsourcing. The research shows that there is an information gap among students and, no doubt, among potential IT students, about outsourcing and how it affects the job market. Career counselors and faculty could help students by explaining the realities of the current IT job environment and the implications of outsourcing work in the U.S. or offshore. Students seem to have little knowledge that some IT jobs are being outsourced to other firms in the U.S., and that the firms doing the outsourcing work are good sources of employment. The group interviews gave researchers information about how students are influenced to enroll in majors, as well as detailed information about how students perceive their majors. These data also show how students think about job expectations. Gender issues were not raised very often in the group interviews, perhaps because only 35% of those interviewed were young women, or maybe because the groups consisted of both male and female students. Female students may feel more comfortable airing opinions about gender in women-only sessions. One finding stands out, though: Students said that it is early success with computing that gives them the idea of majoring in an IT-related field. Clearly, in order to recruit more women into IT majors and careers, educators and parents will need to encourage girls to experiment with IT in middle school and high school and help them have interesting and successful IT experiences. In colleges and universities faculty may wish to consider offering alternative IT courses and programs in order to interest men and women in real life IT applications and to prepare for the workplace through experiential learning, internships, and IT simulations and applications. In their groundbreaking research on male and female CS students at Carnegie Mellon University, Margolis and Fisher (2002) note that it is the contextualizing of CS in real world uses, and the human impact represented in alternative IT programs described in the introduction, that is most appealing to female students. As a result of Margolis and Fisher s work and the recommendations of the Women Computer Science Advisory Council, composed of undergraduate and graduate students in CS, the CS curriculum was reexamined and revised at Carnegie Mellon. The results of the study reported here point the way to possible interventions that could be used to encourage young people to study IT and seek IT careers. Enrollment of women in undergraduate CS programs has dropped dramatically in the U.S., with a decline of 70 percent between 2000 and 2005 (Fischman, 2007, p. A29). Yet there is still a great need for IT professionals. Some interventions have been suggested here, for example, more interesting ITrelated courses in middle and high schools, and career counseling related to IT outsourcing. Other incentives are available, such as courses that appeal to girls and women, and programs that emphasize the human aspects and
17 Students Choice of Information Technology Majors and Careers 51 applications of computing. Since important individuals in a student s life can influence career choice, parents, counselors, and faculty are all potential recruiters for IT programs, but they need to know that their opinions make a difference to young people. Potential adult role models could also inform students about the significant shortage of IT workers and the high salaries available. Students participating in this study were misinformed about both job availability and job compensation. Limitations There were several limitations to the study. The sample was not large, although it was consistent with the sample size for qualitative studies. The focus groups were not conducted using one existing theory, although self-efficacy theory was influential in the research design (Bandura & Locke, 2003). The research questions and interview protocol were triangulated through a study of the literature, rather than tested through factor analysis; some of the questions were adapted from similar studies of career choices in mathematics, engineering and/or science. The results were coded using a grounded theory approach, which is somewhat subjective. Intercoder reliability was tested informally and could have been done more rigorously, but because interview questions were so closely connected with the research questions, and because all researchers had done extensive reading about career choice and students in IT careers, close alignment in coding did not prove difficult. Although concerns and responses were voiced by a small number of students, researchers assumed that the students opinions and attitudes would likely be held by some of their peers. The research is not generalizable because the participants were not chosen through a random sample technique, but through a convenience sample. Focus group research relies on volunteers because the time commitment can be considerable, because times and dates are restricted, and because participants must arrange to locate and travel to the research site. Significance of the Study and Implications for Future Research This study makes a contribution by providing answers to questions about why students seek university IT majors, as well as their career expectations. The findings can be used to create interventions to recruit potential majors to CS, CE, and ITI programs. The data suggest changes in curriculum or the addition of new courses in certain IT majors. With student numbers dwindling, educators, parents, and industry representatives need reliable information about motivators for and barriers to entering IT-related educational programs. The study provides information on which other studies can be based. The shortage of IT workers presents a dire need for the U.S. in an era when technology is ubiquitous. At the same time students, at least those in this study, are misinformed about the opportunities available in IT fields, about salaries, and about certain business practices, such as outsourcing. Information Technology as a career still holds appeal and can offer excellent career paths for students who have skills working with software, hardware, and people. Students do need help, though, in sorting out the career landscape, understanding opportunities, and learning how to prepare for jobs in IT. Further research is needed that can represent findings from a broader sample of students. A study based on the research questions presented here that would gather survey data to support and/or complement the focus group data would be a valuable step toward finding solutions to a societal problem affecting students and their potential futures in the workplace. Clearly, the gender and IT issue needs attention from researchers. Although the National Science Foundation and other agencies have provided funding for research to learn why enrollment of girls and women is decreasing in IT academic programs, the number of women interested in IT continues to plummet (Fischman, 2007). Additional research could be conducted in IT companies or departments to determine the real world skills needed, the hiring requirements, and
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