A career in programming isn’t exactly new. There were programmers before the turn of the millennium, but it wasn’t necessarily a well-known job. Over the last ten to fifteen years, computer programming has risen to prominence as one of the hottest careers. Within the job market as a whole, a record number of people are learning to program. From 18-year-old college freshmen choosing computer science as their major, to adults who self-teach using online resources like Khan Academy, it seems like everyone is learning to code.
Programming has quickly become a go-to skill set and occupation for a large swathe of relatively young and well-educated people. The market for computer programmers continues to grow, but will this be true in five or ten years? Programming is hot right now, but it’s important to think ahead. A tech bubble burst or over-saturated market could severely impact the viability of programming jobs as a ticket to financial security. Offshoring also presents challenges to domestic workers in North America and Western Europe. With these issues in mind, it’s worth asking what the future of programming will be like.
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Learning to Code is Easier Than Ever
Computer programming is useful and interesting in its own right, but there’s another reason why so many people are so eager to learn this skill. Job seekers in 2016 face a difficult and uncertain employment market. Competition is high, many graduates face student loan debt, and millennials are increasingly unable to pursue things like home ownership. In this tough economic climate, computer programming jobs stand out as one of the few remaining professions that can essentially guarantee a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.
Simply put, computer programming pays quite well. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for computer programmers in 2014 was $77,550. Even the bottom 10% of programmers earned a respectable $44,140. For millennials facing high student debt and a job market dominated by low-paying service industry positions, it’s no wonder programming is so appealing.
Not only does computer programming pay very well, but the barrier to entry isn’t all that high. Over two thirds of IT workers do not have a four-year college degree. Of those that do have a degree, 38% majored in something other than mathematics or computer science. Programming and IT require skills that can be developed independently, and these jobs can be accessible for capable individuals without a relevant formal educational background.
That isn’t to say that it doesn’t require a certain degree of analytical intelligence and creative problem solving skills. However, for a reasonably bright person with the motivation to take it seriously, there are plenty of resources out there for aspiring programmers to self-teach. Online courses are available from sites like Khan Academy, and even MIT have free open coursework available. For those with a bit of money to spend, programming “boot camps” provide an immersive educational experience to bring amateurs up to speed.
Could the popularity of computer programming be its undoing? Recently, an oversupply of recent law graduates has left many JDs underemployed and burdened by substantial debt. Could the same thing happen with programming? It’s difficult to say. However, the most obvious threat to programmers’ job security isn’t an over-saturated domestic market. Instead, the threat comes from overseas.
The Problem of Outsourcing
You may have heard of the phenomenon of the “digital nomad,” millennial professionals who work remotely from home or while traveling. One facet of programming’s widespread appeal is that in many cases, it can be done remotely. Quite a few professional programmers make a good living as freelance consultants, or work remotely full-time for their employer. The upside of this is flexibility, but there’s a darker layer beneath: offshoring and outsourcing.
In many developing nations, like India and the Philippines, there are quite a few very talented programmers. In many cases, programming work can be outsourced to these overseas workers. Because the cost of living is so much lower in these nations than in Western Europe and the United States, the workers can charge quite a bit less while still achieving the same degree of purchasing power. This boon to overseas workers presents a serious challenge for their counterparts in the US. An American freelance web developer may charge $50-100 per hour, while someone in India can accept $15 per hour for the same work.
Along with offshoring, there’s also the matter of H1-B visas. The H1-B program is designed to bring in skilled workers to fill job positions for which employers cannot find a qualified US candidate. However, many would argue that H1-Bs are being abused in order to reduce the cost of labor, to the detriment of US citizens.
How Long Will The Programming Boom Really Last?
“Learn to code” is common career advice, especially among educated 18-35 year-olds. But have we reached peak programming? It’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict the future. However, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics did release some future projections at the end of 2015. The BLS predicted that although IT jobs in general will grow 12% by 2020, programmers will be the exception. In 2014, there were 328,000 computer programmers in the United States. Over the next 10 years, this number is predicted to decline by 8%. That’s over 26,000 jobs.
However, while the market for general programmers might suffer, the market for software developers is projected to increase by 17%, the equivalent of 186,600 jobs.
Is Learning to Program Still Worthwhile?
Although the job market for programmers may decline somewhat over the next decade or so, it’s still a hot job field today. Resources like Khan Academy and boot camps have helped make programming skills accessible to almost anyone with the motivation and intelligence to learn how to code, and skill is often valued over formal education and college degrees. Computer programming and other IT occupations provide something that’s often hard to come by in today’s job market: a good middle-class salary and financial security. If you’re interested in programming, or looking to switch careers into something more profitable, learning how to code is a very viable option.
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