Here’s why computer science has such a high unemployment rate:
The biggest reason for high unemployment in computer science, despite plenty of open positions, is that new graduates in the field are often deemed unqualified for open positions.
Part of this is tied to ineffective hiring processes while other issues are related to problems with computer science degree programs.
So if you want to learn all about why computer science has such a high unemployment rate, then this article is for you.
Let’s get started!
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How High Is Computer Science Unemployment?
Before we get into the why’s of computer science (CS) unemployment, maybe we should address the elephant in the room.
Is unemployment really all that high in this field?
In some respects, it’s high, and in other respects, it’s not so bad.
Let’s look at some numbers.
A survey conducted in 2021 put computer science unemployment in the U.S. at 7.8%.
Is that a high number?
It’s tough to put it in context, so I’ll give you a few things to consider.
First, 7.8% is above what is traditionally considered full employment in the U.S.
Full employment typically starts at around 5%.
Also, the general unemployment in the U.S. at the end of 2021 was around 3.9%.
So, computer science as a field had an unemployment rate double the national average.
Based on that, it’s fair to call this high unemployment, especially for a discipline that is supposedly in very high demand.
But international numbers add even more context.
The aggregate unemployment for the European Union in 2021 was about 8.2%.
That’s higher than the computer science number we’re using, which really helps to point out that these numbers are all relative.
On top of all of that, 2021 had higher unemployment rates across the world as compared to previous years.
Unemployment numbers constantly change, so relative comparisons are always important.
With that in mind, computer science unemployment is high in the United States, but the numbers are not catastrophic.
Why Is Computer Science Unemployment High? (7 Reasons)
If you’re convinced that computer science does in fact have high unemployment, we can start to really dig into the topic.
What’s really going on here?
Aren’t there a ton of open computer science jobs?
As of the end of 2020, there were almost 1.5 million empty computer science jobs.
Meanwhile, there are roughly 400,000 new CS graduates each year.
So, there should be plenty of open jobs that would really cut into this unemployment rate.
So, what’s really happening?
There are a few different problems, each contributing to computer science unemployment.
A lot of new graduates are not deemed fit for the open positions.
Meanwhile, a lot of hiring processes are not succeeding in finding the right people for the job with any level of efficiency.
At the same time, more and more people try to break into computer science as a career or career transition.
It’s a bit of a mess, and when I take you through a handful of the leading issues, it will make more sense.
#1 A Slow Hiring Process
Hiring for professional positions is often slower and more involved than hiring for entry-level or unskilled positions.
That much is normal.
But in computer science, even entry-level positions often take a long time to fill.
According to Root Strap research, the average time it takes to fill a software development position is over 40 days.
That slow hiring process often creates a backlog that makes it difficult for computer scientists to break into the field and start working.
If you add an extra month and a half to the starting point for every computer scientist, it’s going to create backlogs and complications that ultimately make it even harder for people to get jobs and for companies to fill positions.
#2 Fast Changes
Still, a slow hiring process alone wouldn’t cause the field to have double the average unemployment rate.
Another major contributor is the speed at which computer science changes.
It takes years to write and publish a textbook.
Yet, the field of computer science can change in the course of a single year.
It’s not uncommon for some of the core lessons in a computer science degree program to be dated by the time the individual graduates.
This is why field experience is so important in the hiring process (at least, it’s one reason why).
If you’re currently working in computer science, you’re more likely to remain up to date with the latest techniques and ideas (especially in fields related to cryptography or security).
Ultimately, this makes it a lot harder for new graduates to get jobs, and that fuels the unemployment rate.
#3 Inefficient Skills
Even outside of rapidly developing fields, computer science is very skill-oriented.
You can finish your degree without becoming a highly efficient coder.
Most graduates are competent at writing code, but that doesn’t make them efficient.
A lot of computer science jobs need people who are efficient, and this isn’t just about writing good code quickly.
It’s about writing code that is efficient with computer resources.
It’s about writing things that can compile quickly or use less electricity.
There’s a lot to consider, and it’s not entirely uncommon for new computer science graduates to come up short in some of these skills.
The degree is broad and covers a lot of topics, so mastering efficiency isn’t always built into the curriculum.
#4 Experience Is Everything
A lot of these issues come back to a general theme.
Employers want experienced computer scientists.
Getting your foot in the door is the challenge, and it’s where most of the unemployment can be found.
It’s a classic catch-22.
You need the experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience.
Keep in mind that a computer science position will hire you by your portfolio and experience more than most STEM positions, and it’s especially true for new graduates.
#5 Intense Competition
This is another huge contributor to the general unemployment problem.
Computer science is different from other STEM fields when it comes to competition.
You’ll be competing with people who don’t even have degrees.
Coders can go through boot camps (which are not college degree programs) and come out with specific, competitive programming skills.
Some programmers freelance rather than go to college, and they are able to build up their skills, work experience, and portfolios while computer science students are in class.
Meanwhile, computer science degrees have fewer certifications than a lot of STEM degrees (consider healthcare professions and engineering).
So, you’re competing with non-degree holders too, and programming is a popular occupation.
Everybody knows that there are opportunities for high-paying jobs.
For many positions, and definitely for the best positions, computer scientists face way more competition than a lot of other fields.
On top of that, the barrier to entry is actually low.
Companies primarily hire based on raw proficiency rather than GPA or other specific scholastic merits.
In the end, it’s a basic math problem.
Computer science is a popular field, and it’s easy for a company to have more applicants than open positions.
#6 Prestigious Jobs
There’s another weird way that computer science runs into unemployment.
It has to do with the incredibly high levels of prestige that surround certain jobs.
Some of the biggest names in employment hire programmers at a high level.
Google, silicon valley startups, and major research firms regularly hire computer scientists.
They are places that are famously desirable.
There was a mainstream movie about how cool it is just to intern at Google.
There’s a massive draw to a lot of these positions.
How does that create unemployment?
It’s easy to shoot for the stars, but there are always going to be more applicants for prestigious positions than there are openings.
Unfortunately, some people go after prestige and don’t create a strong enough safety net.
If you go after Google positions without a fallback option, you might end up without a computer science job.
This by no means explains all of computer science unemployment, but it’s another contributor.
#7 Low-Knowledge Hiring
This problem is not unique to computer science, but considering the popularity of computer science, it might be more evident in this field.
The gist of the issue is that someone who is not an expert in a field is responsible for hiring experts for their company.
Imagine that an HR director with no medical background is in charge of hiring a new neurosurgeon.
They might have a hard time distinguishing candidates based on merit.
At the same time, the hiring manager understands the importance of the position and genuinely wants to get the right doctor for the job.
So, they make the process as thorough as possible (contributing to slow hiring).
They’re making the hiring process slower and more complicated out of good intentions, but the real issue is that the hiring manager needs more background knowledge to do the job right.
This happens a lot in the tech space.
Virtually every industry needs some level of computer science, so you often have people with no tech background in charge of hiring computer scientists.
That leads to gross inefficiencies in the hiring process, and it ultimately delays start times for new graduates and slows down the rate at which computer scientists can get a job.
While it might not perpetually grow unemployment, it definitely adds layers to the bigger picture, and end the end, you see more computer scientists without a job at any given moment.