What’s wrong with computer scientists? Part III: a closer relationship with industry

Posted by s.hettrick on 17 January 2014 - 9:37am

The Software Sustainability Institute was asked to take part in the debate about the employability of computer scientists and the ideas that have been proposed to help the situation. For our next post on the issue, we wanted a perspective from a computer science department, so we are very pleased to publish this post from Joyce Lewis at the University of Southampton.

By Joyce Lewis, Senior Fellow for Partnerships and Business Development at the University of Southampton.

It all depends what you mean by computer scientists... The statistics collected by UK universities through the annual DHLE (Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education) appear to show that a number of graduates from courses that have the words Computer or IT in their titles are not in graduate-level jobs six months after graduation, and that this constitutes the highest proportion by subject of any graduates. However, a very large number of degree programmes are grouped under the Computer Science/Software/IT heading, and there is considerable variation in the employability figures between similar courses even at the same university.

There is a (not unexpected) correlation between high entry grades and employment success. Often the courses with lower employability rates combine computer science with business-specific areas such as media, marketing, management, gaming and music. By grouping together all the Computer-y degree programmes, the DHLE is not providing a clear view of the employability of computer scientists. Perhaps, too, the DHLE statistics are gathered too early – a more accurate picture of employment success might be gained after a number of years, rather than a few months.

While the headline features of this debate are familiar, they don’t reflect our experience at the University of Southampton: our students gained a 95 per cent employability in 2013. Our Russell Group member’s badge and league-table standing certainly helps to attract excellent students, but an equally important factor is that over many years we have worked to build an environment in which employability is embedded in our teaching so that our students are motivated to join the technology industry and put their skills to use.

Computer science departments have a great opportunity to build strong relationships with leading companies, SMEs and start-ups. Companies visit our department regularly to build our students' awareness of the career opportunities they can expect. To maximise the value of these interactions, we run a vigorous programme of engagement with partner companies and other organisations, encompassing careers fairs, regular presentations, competitions, and sponsorships, all of which helps our students gain a better awareness of the career paths open to them. Computer science departments can help their students not only by providing them with the skills they require to compete for excellent jobs at the end of their degrees, but also by ensuring that they have a good knowledge of the different companies and technology sectors. We encourage our students to do summer internships, which provides an excellent insight into possible careers and helps the students to acquire useful contacts. It is very pleasing to see at Graduation time that our students are on their way to excellent jobs, the majority of them using or drawing on the skills they have acquired in their courses.

Studying in a research-intensive department ensures that students are exposed to the latest technologies, which is vital when they gain employment in the competitive and technologically fast-moving environment of industry. But employers (of course!) are looking for more than just the technical skills – a few years ago we surveyed companies at our annual careers fair, and asked what they considered to be the top three skills needed by technology graduates: technical skills and aptitude were followed closely by communication skills and a solid demonstration of commitment and enthusiasm. With these skills in mind, we encourage our students to spend time in the lab outside their studies, to hold weekend events such as coding challenges and design-and-build competitions in our buildings, and to organise their own careers events - our department has 14 student societies, all of which have busy programmes of social, technical and careers activities. This kind of atmosphere doesn’t just happen – it needs support and encouragement from the department. If computer science departments want to work closely with companies, they must first listen to the companies' needs and ensure that courses produce graduates who can hold their place in tomorrow’s workplace. We think this approach works, and certainly companies that employ our students come back each year to employ more (and are positive about our students’ abilities).

There is no doubt that there is a shortage of software developers and, more pressingly, electronic engineers. Many of the solutions now being brought forward by government and think-tanks will hopefully make a difference in the future. But other trends are also emerging: the excitement and opportunities brought about by tech entrepreneurship is leading an increasing number of students to set up their own businesses as soon as they graduate – either as freelance Web or App developers, or by bringing a technology solution to traditional industries such as fashion or retail.

All of the suggestions in previous iterations of this blog are of course welcome – including better teaching of the subject and of STEM subjects in general in schools, reversing the decline in female students, and degrees with modules beyond the Computer Science curriculum. But maybe something else that would help is better partnerships between employers and departments, graduates with more solid and adaptable skills sets, and departments in which students have fun, but also flourish as people and as programmers! And perhaps a little less reliance and attention paid to league tables would also be a good thing. Enthusiasm for what Computer Science can do may be the biggest attraction for students in the future.