Do You Believe in Magic? Why Millennials Show Little Interest in IT Careers

There was a 60 percent decline during 2000-2004 in the number of freshmen planning to major in computer science. Bill Gates was recently quoted as saying that he was baffled by that declining enrollment, especially since those same young people just love all of their technology toys. Microsoft, he says, can’t hire the workers that it needs.

Well, others say that maybe Microsoft is rejecting qualified people because of their specialized requirements. And some people point out that the unemployment rate in the computer occupations is higher than overall professional unemployment occupations. But it’s hard for me to believe that a guy as smart as Gates would be baffled by the freshmen major statistics.

I think I know why those young people are not choosing computer science majors. Here are a few reasons that I think add up to a lot of pressure:

That Unemployment Rate.
The kids heading to school right now are the Millennials. One of the things about Millennials that is important is that they rate eventual financial success as very important. And they’re not ignorant about that unemployment rate because another thing about Millennials is that they listen to their parents.

No, really. They do listen. Studies have shown that in many ways. I spoke recently with the career center director at a large Florida university. She d'es a sort of “exit survey” with graduating seniors and one of the questions she asks them is which factors in their lives are the most important in their job search. The largest single factor reported from those surveys is those students’ parents. Ahead of the career counseling office, ahead of online job services, ahead of everything else; Millennials are taking their parents’ advice. And you can bet that their parents are aware of that unemployment rate.

Real or not, and I think it’s real, those students heard, throughout high school, from the media and from their parents about jobs being outsourced offshore. For a young person who intends to be an affluent adult, and these kids do intend that, the uncertainty of going into a field where lots of people appear to be losing their jobs to lower paid but good IT workers in India and elsewhere is a barrier to looking at that major.

The dotCom Bust.
These students hit high school just after the dotcom bust. They’ve spent high school hearing their parents moan about losses in the 401k and 403b retirement funds. All of that has cast a bit of a pall on the attractiveness of an IT major.

Schools Having Less Emphasis.
And, although I don’t have statistics as to the extent of it, after that dotcom bust and in response to the offshore outsourcing, I believe that some schools shrank their computer science departments and also probably decreased their marketing of those majors.

Boys Versus Girls.
And if that wasn’t enough, you do know that there is a “crisis” about less boys coming to college, don’t you? And, like it or not, IT has been seen, by some inside and by a lot outside of it, as a particularly male domain. So that perception combines with the decreasing pool of male students to put a drain on students choosing those majors. I think that if there are computer science departments out there feeling the need to boost their student numbers, they’d be wise to really focus on making IT classes female-friendly – and that d'esn’t mean having pink computers. (Although for the Millennials in general, colorful computers is not a bad idea at all.)

I spoke earlier today with Diana Oblinger, EDUCAUSE vice president, and she noted that Millennials are extremely keen on finding relevance and importance to their life and making a difference in the world. Many of them do not see through the initial façade of disciplines like mathematics, the sciences, and computer science and just do not perceive them as relevant. She noted that anecdotally, at least, there is a rise in joint majors where students focus on, for example, applying information technology to social studies or other disciplines.

Technology Versus Magic.
But I think that the biggest force working on students nowadays, working against their choosing computer science majors, is a counterintuitive one. It was Arthur C. Clarke, I think, who once said: “Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.”

The Millennials grew up with this technology and it is for them now so slick and so sophisticated that while they would probably not describe it as magic, it d'es “feel” like magic to them. Called “magic” or not, we are living in a magical world, and they do not have to know computer science to work the magic!

They have the most fun with it when they don’t have to think about it. Think about that. Ten years ago you had the most fun with technology toys if you knew how to code, connect cables, and build things: Because you had to know that to use them. That’s not true anymore, and why on earth would someone want to dig inside the toys and learn how they work instead of play with them?

A few people always will want to, but most will not. These students don’t feel the need or want to create software or build hardware, they just want to use those technology tools to do things.

When you think about it, it seems an inevitable consequence of where we are in the transformation by technology of our culture – and it’s only going to get more so.

At a Society for College and University Planning roundtable just this morning I was describing to a group of high-level college administrators how in 10 years I would be walking around with my computer jewelry dangling from my neck and a host of three-dimensional avatars hanging around me in a cloud, representing my coworkers, colleagues, and friends in distance places (or even around the corner or up the hallway). Those avatars and I would be talking back and forth much like we use instant messenger now.

Those high-level administrators didn’t blink an eye. Almost no one believes in magic anymore, but that may be because we are surrounded by so much of what would definitely have seemed to be magic 50 years ago.

Maybe we have to wait until the Harry Potter kids hit college and maybe we should rename our computer science departments as “Departments of Magic.” Someone needs to write a grant to the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. If you do, count me in as a consultant.

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