Ross Waycaster designed the first of his four mobile applications as a high school senior in Tupelo, Miss., a game called "Super Marrio Jump" that's been downloaded from the Apple store more than 20,000 times, earning him more than $16,000.
"I have an entrepreneurial spirit, so we'll see where that takes me," said Waycaster, 21, who's now a junior at Mississippi State University in Starkville.
It could lead him to a top-paying job in a sizzling new industry, one that might provide the United States with a big opportunity to increase its exports in coming years. While the overall economy still lags, the "app economy" has created nearly 500,000 U.S. jobs since 2007, when there were none.
Companies even worry that the nation isn't moving fast enough to produce new talent for thousands of unfilled jobs as consumers demand more and more gizmos and gadgets for their smartphones.
As a result, salaries are rising quickly: Mobile apps developers can expect pay increases of 9 percent next year, among the highest of any jobs, putting them in the range of $92,750 to $133,500 a year, according to a survey by the staffing and consulting firm Robert Half International.
Curbing the trade deficit
If the United States can maintain its dominance in the industry, many say the app economy could make a big dent in the country's trade deficit. Last year, for example, more than 20 percent of the apps downloaded in China were made by U.S. developers.
"There is unprecedented opportunity for America to capitalize on exploding international markets," Peter Farago, the vice president of marketing for Flurry, a high-tech startup company in San Francisco, testified in September before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade.
Farago said his company had more than 100 employees and 50 open positions and that "we literally cannot find the talent we need fast enough." He told members of the subcommittee that the app economy will become increasingly international and that the United States should do more to improve education and retraining programs and to make it easier for companies to bring and keep more talent from foreign countries.
"We're in a human capital crunch," added Rey Ramsey, president and chief executive officer of TechNet, a network of technology executives that promotes the industry.
According to a TechNet study released earlier this year, the United States had created 460,000 jobs for app programmers, designers, marketers, managers and support staff since the iPhone was introduced.
The TechNet study found California is by far the dominant player in the industry, accounting for nearly one of every four jobs. New York ranks second, followed by Washington, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Georgia, Virginia and Florida.
Among metropolitan regions, New York ranked first, followed by San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, Calif.; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif.; and Seattle-Tacoma.
Some universities have begun retooling their curriculums. At Mississippi State, students are enrolled in such popular courses as Field Studies in iPhone Entrepreneurship.
Rodney Pearson, head of the information systems department at Mississippi State, said most of the graduates from the business program made starting salaries of $45,000 to $50,000.
"But we have had six get jobs as app developers at $80,000," he said.
He said students had created all kinds of apps, including a game called "Poke the Pig," another that counts pitches during baseball games and one that aids in swimming pool maintenance. He predicted that Waycaster will become "a serial entrepreneur, for sure."
Waycaster, who plans to graduate in May 2014, said he enrolled in the iPhone course after teaching himself how to create an app just by Googling and reading about them online.
"It really did help me out," said Waycaster, who is the technology chairman of his fraternity. "When you teach yourself something, you have other ways of thinking, and so when you actually go through a class in a structured way, things connected."
Besides "Super Marrio" -- that's with two R's to distinguish it from the registered trademark of Nintendo's popular "Super Mario Bros." game -- Waycaster has created apps called "Dye Birds," "Football Cannon" and New Earth Symbol. He described the latter as an app "that illustrates God's promise of a new heaven and new earth" as described in the biblical Book of Revelation.