Information Technology (IT), Information Communication Technology (ICT) and Computing are umbrella terms used to describe the broad professional area of IT (Deloitte, 2018; Palmer et al., 2018). According to the Digital Pulse report (Deloitte, 2020), the IT workforce in Australia increased 6.8% from 2018 to 2019; this is more than double the increase recorded in other areas of the labour market. Forward projections suggest continued growth in Australia: for example, from an IT workforce of 772,100 to one of 1,000,000 by the year 2027 (Deloitte, 2020). Although 93.8% of IT graduates reported labour workforce participation in 2019 (QILT, 2020), less than half of all 2019 vacancies were filled by people with an IT degree. The trend towards project-based, part-time, and hourly-based work is already evident in the Australian graduate data, which show that less graduates were working full time in 2019 than previously (FYA, 2021); QILT (2020). Towards mid-career (between 35 and 44 years of age), Palmer et al., (2018) found that only 30% of people who started their career in the IT profession remain in IT, suggesting that many professionals leave the sector or take other (non-technical) roles. The data suggest that an initial career choice to work in IT may not translate to career-wide engagement.
A career is a complex, personal and dynamic activity in which people engage for a significant part of their lives. A career is constructed through a complex mix of professional and personal processes and activities influenced by dynamic interactions between beliefs, behaviours, society and environment (Hall, 2002; Patton & McMahon, 2006). Many students come to university with a career interest or career aspiration, informed by their previous experience. During their time at university, students will ideally participate in experiences that align with and extend their emerging career identity. A contributing factor is that of directing deliberate attention towards an area of work that holds career interest. It is important that students add to their career thinking a realistic understanding of the labour market in which they would like to work. In developing this understanding with IT students, a number of dominant narratives need to be disrupted. A prime example is the assumption that students within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines are high-achieving students who prefer technical roles. In contrast, previous studies suggest that student who study IT aspire for a variety of roles in and outside of the discipline (e.g., McKenzie et al., 2017).
Many learners enter university without having engaged in career thinking. This limits their ability to make informed career choices or to engage intentionally in career development learning (CDL). Understanding students’ choice of major and emerging career aspirations has the potential to support their career decision-making and exploration. There is therefore a need to understand students’ motivations for study and career, particularly during the upper years of secondary school and the first year of university (Tsakissiris & Grant-Smith, 2021).
To understand the antecedents to career interest, the two-year study reported here examined the choice of major and career aspirations of undergraduate IT students at an Australian university. The article first reviews the literature and the introduces the approach and theoretical framework. The results are presented thematically and then discussed. The article ends with practical implications for educators.
Understanding students’ choice of study major and career aspirations through the lens of social cognitive career theory
In line with social learning theories of career decision making (Mitchell & Krumboltz, 1990) and social cognitive career theory (SCCT) (Lent et al., 1994, 2000), there is broad agreement that career interest or motivation is socially constructed, with choice of university major often influenced by prior experience, self-perceptions, intrinsic or personal utility values. SCCT, a derivative of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986), is an established framework with which to characterise the career decision making of students. In SCCT, career interest is defined as the curiosity and positive emotion for constructing a career (Janz & Nichols, 2010). SCCT describes that people generate career interests by developing confidence in activities related to their interests (i.e., self-efficacy) with outcome expectations validated through expended effort Betz & Hackett, 1983; Johnson & Muse, 2017; Morrison, 2014; Lent et al., 1994, p. 87) emphasise that “the effects of learning experiences on future career behaviour are largely mediated cognitively … people differentially recall, weight, and integrate past performance into arriving at efficacy appraisals”. As such, SCCT emphasises both feedback and feed-forward mechanisms together with intra- and inter-personal, historical, and contemporaneous dimensions.
In previous studies exploring IT students career aspirations and career development plans, students’ lack of confidence or efficacy beliefs was identified as a key attribute assisting formation of career choice (McKenzie et al., 2015). Lent et al. (2008) found in their study of undergraduate computer science students that self-efficacy played a significant role to either directly or indirectly mediate outcome expectations, career supports or barriers, to form career interest and goals. The link to choice of major is made by Wigfield & Eccles (2000, p. 82), who write that “life-defining choices such as those linked to course enrolments, college majors, and occupational choice are influenced by the value individuals attach to the various achievement-related options they believe are available to them”.
Luse et al., (2014) found in their later study that interest and outcome expectation have a significant positive impact on students’ choice of major, yet noted variance in the motivator for choosing a major in IT. Mahadeo et al., (2020) found that interest informed students’ emerging identity as an IT professional, with predictors of career choice being efficacy beliefs, interest, and recognition or achievement in computing. However, the availability of career supports and barriers also influences the development of career interest and, subsequently, career choice (McKenzie et al., 2015). Overall, SCCT explains both pre-professional and career behaviours (Janz & Nichols, 2010) and provides a general predictive in understanding the interest and choice of STEM cohorts by both gender and race/ethnicity (Lent et al., 2018).
As a framework for understanding the aspects needed to build self-image, then, the social cognitive theories of Bandura provide a logical scaffold for research on students’ choice of study major and career aspirations. To understand motivation and interest, we adapted Lent et al., (1994) model of basic career interests and Richardson and Watt’s (2006) FITchoice model to highlight the cognitive and behavioural influences that impact students’ choice of major and career aspirations. Whereas Lent et al.’s (1994) model is designed to illustrate the development of career interest over time, we focused on sources of self-efficacy and outcome expectations to propose an adaptive ‘choice of major’ model (Fig. 1) that includes the aspects of emotional and pragmatic choice. Soria & Stebleton (2013) study of career decision making, using self-determination theory (SDT), concluded that the inclusion of students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivations is valuable in both initial study decisions and in supporting students through the student lifecycle. A contributor to the model, and aligned with the need to disrupt the stereotypes attributed to STEM students, is that STEM majors are motivated by personal utility value such as meaningful work, task challenge and a positive work environment (Bennett et al., 2020; Watt et al., 2012) and by utility or altruistic-type motivations (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000) such as making a social contribution or resolving environmental concerns.
As shown in Fig. 1, students’ pre-university career aspirations—the antecedents to students’ choice of major—are informed by socialisation influences such as family, friends, teachers and prior experiences (Bandura, 1986; Bright et al., 2005; Carduner et al., 2011; Lent et al., 2002). Students’ choice of major can be negatively influenced by social dissuasion and variously influenced by multiple internal and external influences.
To explore the factors that impact students’ choice of major and career aspirations, this two-year study asked three research questions designed to enhance understanding of what motivates undergraduate students to study IT:
1) How do undergraduate IT students choose their study major (antecedents)?
2) What are the immediate and long-term career aspirations of undergraduate IT students?
3) How do these choices and aspirations inform students’ career interests?