Software and engineering enrollment spikes at Oregon universities

December 17, 2013 Comments Off
                  

Oregon Universities

Portland State University first noticed something was up over the summer.

“The math classes were starting to fill up. The physics classes were starting to fill up. The basic engineering classes were starting to fill up,” said Jim Hook, an associate dean in the university’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Initially, the university was skeptical. Enrollment numbers fluctuate ahead of the fall term as students juggle course loads and pick majors, so schedulers were cautious about adding classes. But when fall came, Hook said, the engineering school was hit with an “enrollment storm” – nearly 300 more students than the year before, and more than it could handle.

So PSU added introductory classes in the winter and spring, classes ordinarily offered just in the fall, to meet the surge in interest. Enrollment in PSU’s electrical engineering and computer science program is up 22 percent in the past two years; at Oregon State, enrollment is up 30 percent in the same period.

“We’re seeing really, really, very strong demand from the students,” Hook said.

Universities and Oregon technology companies have been working for years to increase interest in technical programs, aiming to provide workers for the state’s tech industry. Some of those efforts are apparently bearing fruit, with student interest up sharply.

But a lot of the growth is likely organic, a simple recognition from students that technical skills are in high demand and that employers across a range of industries want employees with engineering and computing knowledge.

Shamso Ali, 19, switched her major this year from business to computer science after hearing about the demand for technical workers in a summer economics class. She bought herself a book on the programming language C++ and began putting together rudimentary computer programs on her own.

“Every time you’re coding you’re solving a problem,” Ali said. “I like the challenge of that.”

Originally from Somalia, raised in Beaverton, Ali would like someday to build a business that helps improve Internet access in the developing world. To do that – and to find a good first job after college – she wants to understand the technology underlying the work.

“Business solves problems,” she said, “but not as well as I could if I were familiar with some of the more technical aspects.”

Oregon software jobs are growing at more than 10 percent annually, according to an analysis earlier this year by the Oregon Employment Department. The industry pays an average annual wage of $92,900 in Oregon, well over double the average across all industries.

Businesses large and small, from Intel to tiny startups, are feeling the pinch as they struggle to find workers with the skills they need. Earlier this fall a group of Portland startups put together a pitch video highlighting the city’s amenities in hopes of luring new workers from the Bay Area or other tech hotbeds.

Ideally, though, Oregon would grow its own and meet employers’ needs from the inside.

“Most of these smaller companies want to hire experienced people,” said Terri Fiez, director of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State University. “But if we don’t have a source of these people, they won’t have enough down the road.”

A recent survey sponsored by the Technology Association of Oregon found that a lack of skilled workers, and concern about the number of such workers coming out of the state’s universities, were the top concerns of Oregon high-tech companies.

Many coders learn their programming skills outside a formal educational setting, on the job or on their own. Businesses look to the universities to provide well-rounded, real-world experience to students so they can grow into a new job, according to Skip Newberry, the technology association’s director.

“Get them into a position where they’re employable, at least at a junior level, at some technology company,” he said.

The universities are responding, he said, with internship programs and with other initiatives such as a one-year, online degree program at Oregon State that aims to provide a speedy software education to people who may already have a degree in another field.

“There’s a lot of communication going on between industry and the universities to a degree I haven’t seen in the past,” Newberry said.

Efforts are also under way to diversify the field and add more gender and ethnic diversity. Seventy-one percent of Oregonians working in software are men; at Portland State, more than 80 percent of the engineering and computer science students are male.

David Coronado is director of Oregon MESA (Oregon Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement), which aims to create interest among junior high and high school students in science and math. At Portland State, he works on an Intel-sponsored program designed to recruit and retain a diverse group of students for the technical programs.

“A lot of students are looking for a community, first off, and it’s hard when you’re in a class and you’re looking around and not seeing anyone who looks and sounds like you,” Coronado said.

The percentage of women enrolled in PSU’s programs hasn’t grown significantly, but the program has 161 Hispanics enrolled this fall, up 60 percent from two years ago. Through mentorship, internships and peer groups, Coronado said, PSU is beginning to demonstrate the career potential of a technical education to students who hadn’t previously considered it.

“We want to be able to show students who are in the pipeline that we can get them here.”

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