Computer Systems Design Industry

by Erik Knoder

December 8, 2020

The private-sector computer systems design industry lost about 1,000 jobs (-6%) during the pandemic recession. Although that is a significant loss of jobs, it pales in comparison with job losses during the high-tech recession of 2001. Oregon’s computer system design industry shed more than 3,000 jobs from 2001 to 2003, nearly 30% of its workforce. On the good news side, the industry added back about 500 jobs in October 2020. Computer systems design is the industry that writes the software that runs computers, designs the integration of software and hardware, and operates data processing facilities.

After the bursting of the tech bubble in 2001, the need for the industry quickly resumed and growth continued much as it had before the bubble. The average growth of employment in the industry since 2002 has been 3.5% per year.
The Great Recession caused only small job losses in the computer systems design industry. Annual average employment fell by only 100 in 2009 to 9,600 jobs total. Growth resumed in 2010. The industry added 7,500 jobs (+70%) from its low point in 2009 to 2019 and reached a total of 17,100. It is likely that recent growth will continue and the industry will recover all jobs lost since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The total number of private-sector firms in the industry changed little from 2015 to 2018, but it increased by about 100 in 2019 to 2,626. There are also a handful of local and state government units in this industry, and they have about 550 employees.

The private-sector computer systems design industry paid an annual average wage of $118,452 in Oregon in 2019, an increase of about 3.4% from 2018. Its total payroll was more than $2 billion. Wage growth in the industry has also been about 4.5% per year on average since 2009.

Growth is expected to continue for the industry. A forecast by the Oregon Employment Department predicts that the industry will add nearly 4,400 jobs from 2019 to 2029 and end up with a total of 21,361 in the final year. That is growth of 26% over 10 years, much faster than the expected employment growth of 9% for all industries combined in Oregon.

Industry Structure

Although there were 2,952 worksites (based on tax records) in the computer systems design industry in 2019, many are quite small. Only 1,156 of these worksites had more than one employee on an annual average basis. Just 275 firms had 10 or more employees, and the largest 1% of worksites had 39% of the total employment.

The different parts of the industry tend to favor somewhat different-sized worksites. The broad computer systems design industry actually contains four sub industries: custom computer programming, computer systems design services, computer facilities management, and other related computer services.

The custom computer programming sub industry has many worksites, but it is dominated by small ones. About 65% had no more than one employee in 2019, and only 7% had 10 or more employees. This sub industry had 41% of the total employment in the whole computer systems design industry. The worksites in the catch-all other computer related services sub industry also tended to be small, like the custom programming ones. Only 7% had 10 or more employees. It was also the smallest of the sub industries with about 4% of the total industry employment.

The computer system design services sub industry had more of the larger worksites, 13% had 10 or more employees. It also had 47% of the employment in the whole computer systems design industry. The computer facilities management sub industry had the largest share of the bigger worksites. Twenty-four percent of the worksites in computer facilities management had 10 or more employees in 2019, but it accounted for only 8% of the complete industry.

It appears that some worksites in the broad industry are actually the information technology sections of businesses that are primarily in other industries. For example, a large health care provider might have its IT section organized as a stand-alone worksite that is included in this broad computer-related industry.

The wages paid in 2019 by the four sub industries in the private sector were all higher than average. The computer systems design services firms paid an annual average wage of $119,944; the custom programming firms paid $119,794; the computer facilities management firms paid $103,790; and the other computer related services firms paid $100,006. This last group is more likely to offer services other than programming, and so may have a different occupational mix than the other three industries.

Occupations

The computer systems design industry is dominated, not surprisingly, by people working in computer occupations. Computer occupations account for about 55% of the industry’s employment. More than 175 different occupations worked in the industry in Oregon in 2019. Software developers was the single most common occupation working in the industry, followed by computer user support specialists.
How important are job titles in the industry? Not very, according to software engineer Kevin Johnsrude of Corvallis. “When hiring someone, people in the industry are more interested in what you have done and can do,” Johnsrude stated, “and less interested in what your last job title was.” Although job titles are often not standard across different firms in the industry, there is a tendency to use the terms “developer” and “engineer” to denote more responsibility and independence and the terms “programmer” and “coder” for people who receive more direction. Johnsrude also noted that a person’s formal education wasn’t as important as the skills they had acquired.

Although computer occupations are by far the most common ones in the industry, there are other types of jobs, of course. Management occupations accounted for 18% of the industry’s employment in 2019, business/finance occupations accounted for 8%,and office occupations comprised 6%.

What is it like working in the computer systems design industry? Johnsrude stated that there are pluses and challenges. “It is a great opportunity to invent and create,” he said. On the other hand, the work culture varies greatly among firms. People who are drawn to computer programming may create a work culture that is considerably different from a typical office environment. Another issue is turnover and the difficulty of retaining talented staff.

Overall though, Johnsrude emphasized the opportunities that the industry offers. Although many developers have four-year college degrees, it is possible to get into the industry with community college courses or even just online training. Many university students start their careers with one or two internships. Most new developers work closely with mentors for their first year on the job. Working at a startup business or starting your own business is also common for people starting out. The website stackoverflow.com provides survey results that give insight into software development professionals and their skills.

Software development requires lifelong learning of new technologies. The constant innovation in computers and software drives the industry to be open, flexible, and adaptable. It provides a great opportunity for workers with the same qualities.


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