Computer Systems Design Industry

by Erik Knoder

June 12, 2019

The private-sector computer systems design industry was hit hard by the recession – no, not the Great Recession, the one before it. Remember the high-tech recession of 2001? Oregon’s computer system design industry shed more than 3,000 jobs from 2001 to 2003, nearly 30 percent of its workforce. 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 long-run growth of employment in the industry from 1990 through 2018 was 6 percent per year.
The Great Recession, which resulted in a loss of 8.5 percent of all jobs in Oregon, 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 6,800 jobs (+70%) from its low point in 2009 to 2017 and reached a total 16,400. Then, unexpectedly, the industry lost 100 jobs in 2018. Employment has essentially plateaued in 2019, fluctuating between 16,000 and 16,200 for the first four months. The drop in employment in 2018 was spread among numerous firms, but one mid-size firm did close entirely.

The total number of employers in the industry has changed little since 2015. There were 2,559 firms with employees in the industry in 2015 and 2,557 firms in 2018.

The computer systems design industry paid an annual average wage of $114,615 in Oregon in 2018, although this was down slightly from 2017. Its total payroll was more than $1.8 billion. Wage growth in the industry has also been about 5 percent 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 4,700 jobs from 2017 to 2027 and end up with a total of 20,900 in the final year. That is growth of 29 percent over 10 years, much faster than the expected employment growth of 12 percent for all industries combined in Oregon.

Industry Structure

Although there were more than 2,700 firms listed as employers in the computer systems design industry in 2017, many are quite small. Only 1,282 of these firms had more than one employee on an annual average basis. Just 263 firms had 10 or more employees, and the largest 1 percent of firms had 39 percent of the total employment.

The different parts of the industry tend to favor somewhat different-sized firms. 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 firms, but it is dominated by small firms. About 59 percent had no more than one employee in 2017, and only 7 percent had 10 or more employees. This sub industry had nearly 40 percent of the total employment in the whole computer systems design industry. The firms in the catch-all other computer related services sub industry also tended to be small, like the custom programming firms. Only 6 percent had 10 or more employees. It was also the smallest of the sub industries with about 3 percent of the total industry employment.

The computer system design services sub industry had more of the larger firms, 13 percent had 10 or more employees. It also had 49 percent of the employment in the whole computer systems design industry. The computer facilities management sub industry had the largest share of the bigger firms. Thirty-seven percent of the firms in computer facilities management had 10 or more employees in 2017, but it accounted for only 9 percent of the complete industry.

It appears that some firms 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 unit that is included in this broad computer-related industry.

The wages paid in 2018 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 $117,299; the custom programming firms paid $111,168; the computer facilities management firms paid $102,333; and the other computer related services firms paid $97,363. 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 58 percent of the industry’s employment. More than 100 different occupations worked in the industry in Oregon in 2017. Computer programmers was the single most common occupation working in the industry, followed by web developers.
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 16 percent of the industry’s employment in 2017, finance and office occupations each comprised 9 percent, and office support and design occupations each made up 5 percent of the industry employment.

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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