Still Trending Down: Computing-related graduates in Alberta

If we’re serious about shifting the Alberta Advantage, I think we need to focus on technology. If we really want to be in the sweet spot of adding lots of value, participating in the economy of the future, and being globally competitive, we need smart people who can be creative and innovative in the appropriate sectors and industries. Technology is absolutely going to be at the heart of any sector or industry that will enable us to be world-class and trendsetting, there’s just no question about it.

That’s why this graph absolutely shocked me:

The data comes from the University of Alberta, but I think it is representative of the province as a whole.

The number of students graduating in the fields of Computing Science and Computer Engineering in Alberta is trending downward, with no correction in sight. How can we build the economy of the future when the picture looks like this?

Here’s a bit more detail – with the number of graduates broken out by degree/program:

I haven’t looked, but I suspect enrollment numbers would be similar (that is, I don’t think an incredible number of students register in computing-related programs and then switch out).

Bill Gates has been talking about the need for more students to take up computer science for years now. There’s more demand than supply, even when you factor in immigration. The need for us to stay competitive in this regard is well-documented. It looks like we’re falling further behind.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how we get more students interested in computer-related degrees. But I do think it is important to consider this data when we talk about the success of our provincial technology sectors, and indeed when we consider shifting the Alberta Advantage.

41 thoughts on “Still Trending Down: Computing-related graduates in Alberta

    1. I don’t think institutions such as NAIT are really comparable, they produce a different kind of graduate. Data from NAIT might still be interesting, however. I don’t have any other data handy to compare this to…maybe someone else does?

      1. I agree with Mack in that it is hard to compare a NAIT to a UofA grad. IMO NAITs focus is on creating developers that utilize the tools and have historically focused less on the theory and how/why stuff needs to happen and more on the “this is how you do this”. Which certainly has a place and need in the industry to keep your “Indian” to “Cheif” ratio at a nice golden number, but as a NAIT graduate I would say also sucks because you can feel as though you only have half the solution to a puzzle. In a perfect world, somewhere in between what the UofA and NAIT does would be a more optimal solution.

        As for NAIT’s CST program, they have definitely seen a drop off in the number of people applying vs the amount of people that they take in since the dotCom bubble burst and IT/Tech became a bad word. As such a couple of years ago the program was combined with their Digital Media program to create DMIT. The new class has some killer potential to produce some very good talent as the students are allowed to focus on areas that they want versus having a rigid instruction set, but with anything new there are some challenges that they are facing that I hope will be corrected.

  1. Would be interested in hearing what you think the solution is. I think that one thing is it seems like the CS and Eng departments still try to ‘weed out’ students in the first couple years which I think is wrong. Also they focus way too much on the ‘science’ part of it, rather than the programming and building part of CS so that students can see what they could do with what they’re learning and why the science piece is important. That’s IMHO of course :). I would love to hear more about what people think the solution is, especially as we try to engage more students with Startup Edmonton.

    1. I used to think that too…more “engineering” and less “science”. But I think we need both, definitely. Currently you have to go to different schools to get both, which I agree is a problem. I’ll have to give the solution piece more thought!

      1. I think there’s a LOT of students who are taking Computing Science with every intent of using it for the purposes of engineering. The number that actually remain in the sciences (another interesting statistic) is likely very small. Anecdotally, my degree is evidence of that. That said, if I were choosing again today, I’d probably do the same.

        I don’t know if that really is the problem though. It’s not like Software Engineering enrollment has skyrocketed. I think we need to look to the high/middle school systems for solutions. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that if you go into, say, Chemistry, you’re on a more or less equal footing with most of the other students (that is, Chem 30). Computing though, even if someone took a few easy optional courses in high school, has a much greater skill gap that CMPUT 101 just isn’t going to fill.

      2. Computer engineering has the same problem. Their intro programming course is in MatLab (shudder). Is that really the best way to introduce students to the subject? I doubt it. Why not let students actually build things in their intro classes, all of a sudden it makes a lot more sense why the science piece of it is necessary. I’m not saying that it should be a more vocational school like NAIT, I just think that you would probably have more student engaged if they could see what the science was doing for them.

      3. Don’t you ever slight MatLab again. 🙂

        I would actually argue that MatLab is an interesting intro to programming as it is extremely high level, and thus, allows students to focus on how to develop algorithms and programs to solve hard problems. It is also extremely useful tool later on in engineering to solve many real-world problems. However, I agree that it has to be migrated away from if you are looking to “build” something.

  2. Somewhat agreeing with Cam, I do think that there is something lacking in first year courses at university. I do not know many people who changed to other streams, but the couple that I know found that the teachers for first year courses could be more motivating, helpful and content could be organised better. Somehow getting students to start believing in themselves and not give up easily. One of the classes that I took a year back went from 12 to 5, so the graphs are not too surprising.
    (BTW both of the people that dropped are training to be teachers now :))

  3. I suspect many people forgo the degree for an applied education these days (i.e., NAIT). For what I recall making that decision myself a number of years back (and chose NAIT), the money and career prospects were a lot better.

  4. I believe part of the solution is Alberta must diversify extensively beyond Oil & Gas. The reality is the most students go into University with the goal of ultimately finding a job that is in demand and he/she would enjoy. The ultimate focus of the University and should be of the province is to create demand and supply jobs that requires sophisticated and critical thinking and skills.

    Universities can supply the education and train. The problem without industry creating local opportunities generally means two problems will occur. First, graduates of degrees with limited local opportunities will either relocate to other cities that have the opportunities or the graduate will ultimately have a career change. Either way, my gut feelings tells me the investments the universities and province have made are basically wasted.

    Second, the net impact as a result of the above is, over time, you erode enrollment as students entering post-secondary sees little local job opportunities. The options are, of course, to apply to a different university where there are better local opportunities upon graduation, or apply to a different faculty altogether. Either way, the net effect is a low enrollment in high tech.

    The solution is quite simple. Personally, I believe the solution is only complicated if we try to re-invent the wheel. Learn from India and other hyper rapid growth countries. The industry creates the demand by having the government take the first initiative. India and China was never a powerhouse in IT, software development, manufacturing, engineering, and other high-tech industries until the last 30-40 years. And if you look really closely at how they have done it, my guess is that you will find the government has created an attractive investment environment for large multi-national companies to invest and establish a substantial local presence. The result, of course, is that it creates demand for local talents. As large as these multi-national companies can get, it is just not logistically feasible to import foreign talent for all roles. Not to mention, the local government probably won’t even allow it.

    If Alberta is to grow their ICT or high-tech sector, I believe it needs to execute the following plan:

    1. Create an investment model to attract large national or multi-national high-tech companies where it is worth the effort for these companies to establish a large presence and invest for the long term. And I am not talking about Dell Call Center. That is not high-tech. I am thinking more like the R&D division of Nortel, Blackberry, and etc. The results are:
    – an immediate identity shift from Oil & Gas
    – immediate demand for ITC engineering and high-tech skills

    2. Once Step 1 is establish, the next major component is to establish a financial framework that attracts, jumpstarts, and accelerate high-tech start-ups in the ICT sectors. Why is this important? Step 1 only attracts large high-tech companies to Alberta but it does not address how does Alberta continue to foster and build the next Nortel, Blackberry, or ATI. That must come from the grassroot level. If you want to have a chicken for dinner, you go and purchase a chicken. If you want to build a business of selling chicken, then you need to build a hatchery. Step 2 is the hatchery.

    Does this work? Look to China and India. In the early stage of China’s growth, China’s government attracted large large multi-national companies by offering large financial incentives and access to cheap resources. The tax revenues generated from these companies then are re-invested into training and education of local citizens. It is quite easy to attract students to enroll in computer engineering degree when you have Intel sitting in their backyard. Within 3-5 years of taking this initative, the government knew computer engineering / science students will be graduating and some will be interested in starting a company. So the government created massive high-tech business park targetted for mid size to startup ICT companies with financial incentives and special tax structure.

    So what is the end result. Well, I can tell you without a doubt, within a short period of 10-15 years, China has created companies that have challenged every American IT startup (facebook, e-bay, Google, Cisco, and Yahoo to name a few).

    Again, these are just my personal thoughts.

    1. First, graduates of degrees with limited local opportunities will either relocate to other cities that have the opportunities […] Either way, my gut feelings tells me the investments the universities and province have made are basically wasted.

      That may be true of certain fields/industries, but it’s actually fairly common for students to stay in the place where they studied (the same province, if not the same city), at least in Alberta. I don’t have the exact numbers on hand to back me up, but I work in post-secondary and this is one thing that I have heard constantly repeated.

      That said, your point about graduates making a career change (which I intentionally glossed over in the quote above) may well be true. If you choose to stay in the place where you graduated and that place can’t use your skills, you’re going to change careers and/or develop a new set of skills.

  5. @Cam I have a solution. What needs to happen is that those that are running our post-secondary programs need to get off of their high horses and realize that they really do not know or understand what industry needs. They need to get in contact with as much industry as possible and ask the hard question of “What do you need in terms of skills for someone you are going to hire today and a year or two from now”. When they finally understand the actual jobs that these people are being hired for and can shoot for educating students towards the needs at the top of the pack they can start to make a huge difference in producing quality students that are actually hirable right out of school.

    Now if anyone is reading this and think that I am crazy, know that this is what they have done in Quebec. Their entire tech post-secondary system is tailored around what all of the tech companies in the area like Autodesk, Ubisoft and EA need and as such are producing graduates that have an insanely high skillset that are in more demand than industry veterns from other regions of the world. Why are they in demand? The simple answer is that these businesses know what they are getting from these schools and as know that the talent that they are hiring will not just fit in their needs for today and tomorrow but can also be assured that they are already molded properly to be the cogs that work in a well maintained machine.

    We do not have this here in Alberta. Here we have a loose collection of industry associations, most of which are not looking out for industry but have their own internal goals and needs. We have a motley collection of post-secondary schools that do the bare minimum possible with regards to connecting to industry or graduate students that are capable of fitting in the Alberta workforce. Our post-secondary schools are afraid to tech new techniques, skills and technologies that are essentially because they are afraid to take the risk and make the quick change necessary to pull it off as their industry placement numbers will suffer. Low placement means that they get less funding and they end up running a vicious cycle of mediocracy that they are happy at running because it keeps people employed. Lastly we have 3 levels of our government that have failed thus far to act properly to put their foot in and stop this from happening, they are trying to make an effort now, but are being hindered by various forces from succeeding.

    So while it might sound like what I am saying is bleak. I think that we are also at an important cross-roads that can correct things. We have our champions, we have a fantastic industry that is often overlooked and we have a shifting market occuring where small, agile entrepeneurs can succeed. If we can correct the problems with our post-secondary education we can fast-forward towards success because not only will we be producing exceptional talent here but that exceptional talent will have that desire to make the next big thing because they are creative and looking at these market changes with interest, excitement and as a challenge to be tamed.

    1. The point that education and industry not working closely enough has been said for over 20 years, I’m thinking few are listening

  6. A colleague suggested the prospect of quick riches in the oilsands is luring our young adults. Could this be a factor?

    1. I think the payback of various degrees is definitely an important factor that determines what discipline a technically inclined student chooses.
      If you look at the graduation figures above, the peak graduation rate aligns pretty well with enrolment at the peak of the dot-com bubble, where a degree in a computer related field was perceived to have the best financial outcome.

      Today an engineering student who has just completed their first common year and has to pick a discipline can look at the financial prospects of various sectors. Advanced technology is not where the money is at in Alberta.
      Based on the latest APEGGA salary survey at page 4 of it is clear that the pay difference between advanced technologies and other sectors provides great incentive to avoid computer related disciplines (more than a 20% premium for oil & gas over advanced technologies).

      Not only is the pay difference significant, there is also the perception that computer related disciplines are ‘difficult’. Based on my experience as an engineering student in the early 2000s, computer/electrical engineering and engineering physics were considered the more difficult programs (and had the highest GPA requirement for admittance). The GPA requirements for the various programs has likely shifted since then, but I think the perceived payback/difficulty ratio of various engineering disciplines still makes computer engineering a choice that is low on the list for many first year engineering students.

      Finally, another reality is that the skills acquired in computer related programs now have to compete in a globally competitive market with low labour cost countries offering equivalent talent at much lower compensation rates. Other engineering graduates don’t have nearly the same level of global competition for their services and outsourcing of other engineering disciplines is not nearly as well developed as in the high-tech industry.

  7. I think the question that has to be asked, before we can answer the question of how to get more students interested, is: why aren’t students currently interested? I’m not sure of the answer, but I think it’s important to start at the beginning.

  8. I think we have to look at this issue through a historical lens. When computers first came out, no one knew enough about them to offer any formal education, so those that were building them, building programs for them, etc, learnt their knowledge and skills through hands out trial and error.

    Like any other field (business, communications, psychology, etc), with enough time and experience, programs, certificates and accreditation began to be offered, taught by those who were self taught and had no formal education behind them. The industry began to demand formal education and accreditation of their perspective employees.

    As the Internet emerged and information became easier to obtain, computers became more familiar and easy to understand, people once again began teaching themselves. Those with the ability to learn, can learn what they want about computers without the formal education. Although they may lack the professional support, accreditation and piece of paper indicating they know what they know, these are the people that have lucked out in Silicon Valley despite their lack of formal education.

    These examples (Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, etc) are now examples to which others aspire, and much like our former Premier, Ralph Klein, lack formal education, yet have made it to the top of their industry, admired, despised, yet successful, without a degree in hand.

    So is it really necessary to have a formal degree in these fields? Perhaps not so much so these days, when the answer to many questions can be found online. Does it benefit our youth to get this formal education? Likely yes. But will they? When those that they hold in high esteem are examples of what you can achieve without a formal education, it’s not setting a very good example that spending $40k and 4 years at university or more is worth it. Although it’s a fairly slim chance that anyone can become as successful, it does happen.

    Just from my experience, a formal education does not necessarily, especially in computing, give you the actual skills you need to work or compete in the real world technology industry. Most of those skills are learnt in your spare time or on the job training. So having heard this from others working in the field, may discourage young people from pursuing higher education when they learn that they are better off jumping into the work force or learning the necessary skills on their own.

    Just my two cents.

    1. I would use caution in looking at Jobs or Zuckerberg as examples. These guys are one in a million. Maybe one in a billion. Also worth noting that both “stumbled” upon their companies. They didn’t set out to build billion dollar companies and decided to do so with no education. If you survey the top entrepreneurs and business leaders you will find that 99.9% of them have formal education.

      I often get asked what is better – a formal education or the real life skills you develop by doing? I always give the same answer – get both.

      The above is even better if you can be thinking about and applying what you learn in your formal education to what you are “doing” in the real world.

      1. Agreed…those guys are just so rare, I don’t think it makes sense to use them as examples.

        I do think with technology that “skills you develop by doing” will take you a heck of a lot further than in other industries.

      2. OK, forget using them as examples. The company my husband works for recruits on a yearly basis but rarely hires. Why do you ask? Because those coming out of school don’t have the programming skills necessary to do the job. Often when they hire someone, they have to spend 3-6 months developing them before they get put on a client project.

        When they do hire people with formal education, they often find they have to break bad habits. Or reteaching them skills such as clean coding, structuring, etc. It would almost be easier to take someone with an aptitude and eagerness to learn to do the work then hiring those with formal education that they then have to say, “They’ve taught you wrong, let’s start over”.

        The one thing they find about those that do not actively work in the industry and are teaching, is that their skills are not up to par. Therefore, they wind up teaching the students knowledge that is outdated.

  9. Based on anecdotal evidence, CS enrollment numbers are down across the county. Is it possible that the high number of graduates in the early part of the decade are due to the late 90’s internet boom afterglow?

    I would be interested in seeing data for other cities that aren’t considered technology centers (Regina, Winnipeg, etc.) compared to cities with a lively tech industry (Waterloo, Vancouver).

  10. I’m just gonna put this out there, but perhaps (at least in some parts of CS) It is faster, more up to date and easier to just teach yourself? It’s pretty much all available online.

    -Teach self
    -Build something
    -Get noticed,
    -Bet hired/bought/funded
    -Not have student loan debt.

    My perception is that a person with a CS degree has just as much chance to create something from a good idea as someone who is self-taught and motivated.

    I wonder if its becoming so ubiquitous in society, that todays students already know a lot more than students 10 years ago…

    1. I’m not sure if this accounts for the decline, but I definitely agree that it is easier than ever before to learn on your own. Moreover, it’s required in order to keep up! Certainly a lot of the knowledge I use on a day-to-day basis as a software developer did not come from my time at the U of A, but instead is a direct result of the time I spend learning on my own.

  11. I’d argue that job security and satisfaction are directly related to the decrease in enrollment and graduates.

  12. What about trying to attract more women to the field? Are there any stats for that angle of this? Even most of the commentators on this post seem to be male… problem!! (Says the girl with the English degree.)

  13. I think this is a good view of how people jumped ship on not only computer science, IT and the rest, but on post-secondary education as a whole.
    If enough people believe the world is going to end in a few years, why spend it in a stuffy classroom pursuing the approval of a University board of directors?
    I see a majority of yokels running to spend their money on frivolous things like trips and boats and segways.

    I just don’t see the result (years later, regardless of income potential or career advancements) being enough to bring the kids back to comp. science.

    So take some capitol and open a head shop!

  14. I think this is a good view of how people jumped ship on not only computer science, IT and the rest, but on post-secondary education as a whole.
    If enough people believe the world is going to end in a few years, why spend it in a stuffy classroom pursuing the approval of a University board of directors?
    I see a majority of yokels running to spend their money on frivolous things like trips and boats and segways.

    I just don’t see the result (years later, regardless of income potential or career advancements) being enough to bring the kids back to comp. science.

    So take some capitol and open a head shop!

      1. And perhaps not only enrollment, but available seats… I have wondered if programs have been shrinking due to universities and colleges reallocating budgets.

  15. Perhaps a University Degree in Computer Science is not worth the time and effort? Perhaps someone self taught should just start to work and reap the rewards? Maybe if you looked at the graduation from vocational schools and “CDI Institute of Technology” – where you can study while working, or tailor the curriculum to market needs – you would find sky-rocketing graduation? Credentialism is the pursuit of titles, not skills and I suggest publicly funded University’s have been running the risk of churning out degrees that reflect the needs/wants of its dilettante, elitist latte-sipping Profs – rather than what the marketplace needs.

  16. Great discussion.
    Given the range of responses, it’s obvious there’s no “one” easy answer to explain this decline.
    I’m surprised that nobody has discussed the elephant in the room (at least the elephant that’s in all of my rooms), outsourcing.
    A large share of the major O&G players have shifted the resourcing in their IT / tech depts from local to international. We’re not just talking phones or level I desktop support, but planning, development, etc.

    As someone looking at a 4 year degree with a large personal cost of both time and money, only to exit the pipeline to make $10.00 / hour is insane.

    Most tech salaries in general have plummeted, not only because of the state of the economy, but because of the need to compete with the shops in China, Russia and India.

    I’m all for competition in the global arenas, but only when you have somewhat of a fighting chance. You can’t live in Alberta, pay for goods and essential services in Alberta, pay tax in Alberta and hope for some kind of better life tomorrow in Alberta if you’re making Mexican, China, Russia or Indian wages.

      1. India generates around 500000-1 million cs guys(junk)  every year,
        These guys never deliver what they are suppose to deliver. 
        But innovation still comes from west no matter in what field.
        We Indians are just followers , not risk takers.. Hate to be an Indian 

  17. I’m not surprised because this reflects the value that business places on CS (considered IT), and on the barrier for entry into the job market. An old prof of mine would say that CS was never intended to train you for a job, but was a science that let you see how to problem solve and think. You can infer that most roles in tech do not require thinking. And then the issue of good-enough. Sure, we can say we having our 4 year CS degrees that we know what algorithms or data structures are the most efficient and why, and we can develop new algorithms, but when you get into the real world where you are in a job market with a lot of folks that call themselves programmers, and they can put up that 2 tier web app too, does it really matter that you can do it better? Say you have a background in SEI-CMM, kick butt design and architecture skills, and you know the science of building big complex applications right the first time… does it matter if someone else can churn out cheap, untested ill designed junk that is good-enough? So here is the problem. CS is only one of many routes into a job, and most people are happy with the two week object oriented programming course or their certification du jour. Most employeers are too. But is it fair to say that we took CS to get a job? (I bloggged something related to credability a while ago,

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