IBM: More top electrical engineering students needed

June 07, 2005

May 18, 2005
Durham Herald-Sun
By Mindy B. Hagen
Copyright 2005

DURHAM -- With a critical shortage of Information Technology workers projected in the coming years, it's crucial that university computer science departments do all they can to attract top students to the field, a local IBM official said Tuesday. At IBM University Day in Research Triangle Park on Tuesday, leading IBM officials and university professors from across the region gathered to discuss new ways of marketing computer careers to up-and-coming students.

In addition to hearing about the work being done at individual university departments, the event provided a chance for small groups of IBM developers and faculty to meet and discuss future research projects and allowed graduate students a chance to touch base with a potential future employer. Gina Poole, vice president of IBM's Academic Initiative, told about 120 university educators that an additional 2.2 million people will be needed in information technology-related professions by 2010.

"A lot of today's students will be filling those needs," Poole said. "The demand is building up, but the supply isn't building up fast enough." University educators said they are planning numerous changes to their computer science departments to help allow a wider group of students to take their courses.

At N.C State University, the computer science and electrical engineering departments are seeing increasing numbers of students opting for double majors in both fields. The computer science department there hopes to "re-package" its existing degrees while developing new courses and working with IBM to mold a curriculum that strongly emphasizes "services solutions."

Duke professor Owen Astrachan said his department wants to pay attention to "untapped" interdisciplinary alliances. Duke economic students, or business students, could benefit from taking computer science courses, Astrachan said. "The slope shows an unbelievable decline in computer science majors," Astrachan said. "There are smart people no longer even signing up to take our introductory courses. We need to fix it, or there's not going to be a U.S. work force in computer sciences."

And that's the exact problem IBM is trying to avoid by partnering with universities through the Academic Initiative. IBM has contributed more than $30 million in the last 15 years to universities across the state, supporting the schools' research grants, equipment and software. The software and IT services giant hopes its partnership with universities can lead to shared research projects and allow experts to provide skills training and education resources to students.

But IBM also hopes it receives a leg up in recruiting the best and brightest when graduation day approaches. Pierre Mouallem, a doctoral candidate at N.C. State, said he's indebted to the IBM professionals who have spent time teaching his classmates "on-demand" business strategies and providing funds for his university's computer science department. "You look at the size of this company, and it's one of the big leaders in its market," Mouallem said. "They do a lot to help students get a chance to work with them. It's really promising."

Sue Horn, vice president of the IBM software group, said her company's relationship with local universities would only continue to grow. "Our collaboration with universities sincerely is a very important thing for us that we want to cultivate," Horn said. "A day like this is paramount, but it's only the culmination of what we do all year long."