HELENA — Former software company executive Greg Gianforte’s latest initiative is to push more Montana students to pursue computer science degrees, which he says are in great demand and can boost the state economy.
But can Montana’s university system respond to this demand, and quickly crank out more computer-science graduates, if the desire is there on the part of students?
College officials say yes — although they caution that it’s not something that can occur overnight.
“We have some capacity,” says Brett Gunnink, dean of Montana State University’s College of Engineering, which includes the school’s computer science department. “We’re looking at, how do we grow that capacity, so we can begin to meet the demand for computer science graduates.”
Gunnink and other Montana college officials say computer science programs at MSU, Montana Tech and the University of Montana can expand to accommodate more introductory students.
“We could easily handle 50 percent more students,” says Jeff Braun, chair of the computer science department at Montana Tech in Butte. “If we had more students, we’d just add another introductory lab.”
They also applaud Gianforte’s new CodeMontana program, an online curriculum designed to get Montana high school students interested in computer programming and computer science as a career.
Braun notes that only six high schools in Montana teach computer programming.
Gianforte, a cofounder of the program, unveiled it last week at the Montana Economic Development Summit in Butte. He said 400 computer-programming jobs are available in Montana this year, but that the Montana colleges graduated only about 40 people in the field this spring.
Yet while computer-science programs at the three campuses can expand to handle an increase in beginning students, getting a lot more people through the program to graduation is tougher, officials say.
For one thing, the programs aren’t easy. The three programs have about 450 undergraduates now but graduated only 43 people this year — just 10 percent of the total.
“We get a fair number who start out and then go to other majors,” says Yolanda Reimer, chair of the computer science department at the University of Montana. “Hopefully a few years from now, we will have more graduates. We’ve been working really hard at making the program accessible … and flexible.”
A sustained increase in computer-science majors would probably mean hiring more faculty for the long term. College officials say that can be done, but it takes planning.
“It’s one of those areas where we’re seeing a lot of programs that want to expand their options and opportunities,” says Neil Moisey, the university system’s deputy commissioner for academic, research and student affairs. “We look at putting additional resources into programs, when it’s demand-driven.”
Interest in computer-science degrees took a big dive after the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, college officials say, but has started to recover within the past few years.
Still, Gianforte said many people still view computer science as a “hobby” rather than a career.
“The message is, there are good career opportunities if you pursue computer science,” he said in an interview last week. “That’s a message for high-school college counselors. We have an economic opportunity that were not fully realizing right now.”
CodeMontana is an effort to “move the needle on demand creation” for computer-science education, he said.
College officials say graduates of computer-science programs have no problem finding jobs upon getting their degree, working for Montana companies or large, national firms, with starting pay often approaching $80,000 a year.
“There is 100 percent placement of our graduates, for the 13 years that I’ve been here,” said Braun of Montana Tech. “I usually have more employers inquiring about our graduates than I have graduates to fill the jobs.”