Information Systems graduates now have the highest unemployment rate—Finally the evidence we need to change course?

The Hard Times 2013 employment report from Georgetown University has the usual laments about how tough it is for recent college graduates to find a job.  Political Science majors have high initial unemployment rates from ages 22 to 26, as do Film majors, Anthropologists, and Architects.  But one undergraduate major tops them all, with a 14.7% unemployment rate.  It must be something wildly impractical, with no relevance to our highly competitive, globalized job market, right?

It’s Information Systems.

How could things be this bad?  Aren’t the tech giants and the Bureau of Labor Statistics both screaming that the US faces a 70k per year shortfall of Computer Science bachelor’s students through 2020 (see slide 88)?

It could be that the study is counting majors the wrong way–there’s always some ambiguity about who’s really an IS major vs. Computer Science, Information Technology, or Information Science.

It could be that initially high unemployment is simply part of the game for technical majors.  Even Computer Science majors had relatively high initial unemployment at 8.7%, higher than general business students or even liberal arts.  By mid-career (ages 30 to 54), however, both Information Systems and Computer Science majors have very low unemployment (4.4% and 4.7%) and relatively high salaries, though CS makes more.

I’d agree that Information Systems and Computer Science both put more of a premium on practical experience than many other majors, explaining some of the initial unemployment.  But to explain an unemployment rate through age 26 higher than Film majors and Anthropologists, there has to be something more going on.

I love my discipline–Information Systems has been very good to me–but I have to come out and say it:  our curricula and our research are outdated.  We are not doing enough to help Information Systems professionals, particularly our youngest ones, be effective.

We’ve known for years that students don’t find introductory Information Systems education interesting or useful.  I agree completely with recent critiques of IS education as lacking useful project work, and that teaches low-level skills such as spreadsheets, database design, and systems analysis diagramming rather than how to deliver great digital products and services.  That’s why we’ve been experimenting at USF with new ways to teach technology to business students for years.

As for our research being outdated, that is a tougher claim to prove, because Information Systems research is so diverse.  Rather that repeat the arguments that we have put academic rigor on a pedestal at the expense of practical results, I will instead suggest that our ‘big question’ has been wrong.  What has been our ‘big question’?  We recently did a textual analysis of the 100 most cited articles in Information Systems research.  The top phrases are things like ‘systems’, ‘use’, ‘information’, ‘users’, ‘usefulness’, and ‘acceptance’.  What I’m trying to say here is that the ‘big question’ for Information Systems research has been:  how can we get people to use technology?

Well, as Dennis Rodman might say, Guess what?  Getting people to use technology isn’t really a problem anymore.  Even my MUNI bus ride to the office this morning would prove to you that no one has a problem getting people to use technology–everyone’s head is buried in a screen.  The real problem is, is there anything new and valuable coming out of that screen time?  How do we take all this digital capability and make some valuable and great out of it?  That’s the new ‘big problem’ we need to focus on.  Graduates who can do this might be in more demand.

I hope this new unemployment data will shake up my discipline, and focus some attention on whether the things we do are working or not.  In the meantime, of course, being an academic and all, I can reveal to you that I have the answers to all our problems.  I’m happy to share, if there’s any interest…

 

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