Lining Up for Jobs

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2002-08-28

Lining Up for Jobs

The upside of Mike Reeves job is that hes working in IT. The downside is that this newly minted graduate with a masters in IS management from Brigham Young University is working for his dad. Hes developing a Visual Basic application that will churn out proposals for insurance clients. Its not a bad job, but working for a small, family-owned business is certainly not what he had in mind when he decided to get his masters degree. Why not something more in line with his training? Because since graduating in June, Reeves hasnt been able to find such a job.

As they head back to colleges and universities this month, thousands of IT-oriented students face a bleak job market. Although industry groups and government agencies continue to predict that, in the long run, demand for IT professionals will far exceed supply, in the short term, many companies are slashing hiring of entry-level employees, and some are cutting back their internship programs.

As a result, say experts, IT professionals in training should begin now to rethink how they can best tailor their skills and work experience to appeal to employers that, increasingly, are flooded with IT résumés. (See chart, "Dont even think about trying to get a job in IT without ...")

First, that means understanding what industries are still most likely to be hiring—government, defense contractors and some IT vendors such as Microsoft Corp., for example—and what skills they are likely to need. Many companies—among them is The MathWorks Inc., a software company in Natick, Mass.—are attracted to graduates with broader engineering backgrounds, as opposed to those with transcripts that stick exclusively to computer science classes. Another lesson: The need for basic technical skills is a given, but both large employers such as Microsoft and SAS Institute Inc. and smaller ones such as Washington Group International Inc. report that theyre focusing on teamwork skills.

In addition, entry-level IT professionals should target geographic areas with lots of large employers since they are more likely to hire entry-level workers.

And, finally, the tight IT job market means students should get aggressive about locking up internships and finding other ways to get real-world IT experience. But beware: College employer liaisons now say the size of the company where you intern matters. If a students internship is at a small, unknown company, employers are generally passing on hiring.

So just how bad is the job market for entry-level IT professionals? Its not the worst ever, but its close. When the National Association of Colleges and Employers in April asked employers to compare how many college graduates they hired in 2000-2001 with the number they expect to hire in 2001-2002, respondents overall projected a 36.4 percent drop. The technology sector in particular is suffering: Respondents estimated hiring will be off 58.7 percent at computer and business equipment manufacturers this year. For consultancies, its worse: Hiring is down 89.7 percent, according to NACE.

Nor does entry-level IT hiring figure to pick up any time soon. At The MathWorks, Gail Cole, a senior human resources specialist, said that during the past two years, the company—which employs more than 1,000 people—has hired approximately 75 IT people, about 25 of whom were entry-level. So far this year, the hiring rate is half that. "Itll probably be a conservative year until we see where the economy and the revenue is bringing us," Cole said.

With many companies restraining hiring, entry-level IT types can be sure of one thing: Any company thats still hiring is swimming in résumés.

Take BAE Systems, a defense contractor in Nashua, N.H. Senior HR representative David Gray said he has seen thousands of résumés over the past two seasons. "Were absolutely inundated," Gray said.

That allows BAE to be selective. The company filters out candidates based on GPAs, with 3.0 being the minimum that gets recruiters attention.

Page Two

: Bucking the Trend">

Bucking the trend and actually increasing hiring of entry-level IT candidates is Microsoft. In its most recent quarterly report, the Redmond, Wash., company announced it will be hiring about 800 full-time college grads, as well as another 700 to 800 interns. Thats up from the 650 students it hired last year.

The good news loses luster when you compare the number of openings with the flood of résumés they elicit. Senior Technical Recruiter Colleen McCrearys team typically sees some 100,000 résumés annually. Competition, to put it mildly, is intense.

While many organizations are holding down IT hiring, internships offer entry-level IT candidates a chance to get experience and, perhaps, a job. And the good news is that some companies, including BAE, are expanding internship programs.

Three years ago, BAE hired 15 to 20 summer interns. The company decided to get serious about the program during the 2000-2001 school year, bumping up its intern pool to 70. Management also developed a new policy of scrutinizing interns résumés as closely as for full-time hires. When the students returned to school last fall, they were put on educational leaves of absence and retained their status as employees. The move gave the company the flexibility to bring them back over the Christmas break and to avoid paperwork when the students returned the next summer, Gray said.

BAE expanded its internship program, Gray said, because it gives the company a chance to train IT professionals from the ground up in the companys culture and work methods.

Another organization continuing to invest in its internship program—even as it cuts back on IT hiring—is The MathWorks. While the company has halved hiring levels, it has spared the ax when it comes to students because management views its internship program as a long-term investment. This summer, the company brought in 25 interns and co-op students—the same number as in the past few years.

"We hire them now [as interns] with an eye toward [hiring them as full-time workers] two to three years down the road," Cole said. The majority of The MathWorks entry-level hires enter the companys one- to two-year engineering development program, which exposes new hires to various areas of the company and then feeds them into either software development, technical sales or applications engineering.

Recent graduates may experience increased competition for such internships, however. While companies such as The MathWorks and BAE are expanding or at least sustaining internships, others are cutting back on the programs (see story, "If Internships Dont Work Out ...").

Page Three

: The Hot Skills">

What skills will get entry-level IT job candidates noticed by hiring managers? Not surprisingly, technology vendors expect applicants to know their products. For example, anybody who walks through The MathWorks front door in search of employment should speak fluent Matlab, the proprietary programming language on which the companys software products are built. Similarly, officials at Microsoft expect knowledge of Windows, Office and other products. Recruiter McCreary said the companys Windows, Office, .Net and developer tools divisions are hiring big. The natural languages, Tablet PC and gaming divisions will also be staffing up.

Besides product-specific skills, virtually all employers—including The MathWorks—expect "some basic technical skills" such as programming in a variety of languages, Cole said. And, like many employers interviewed for this story, The MathWorks is increasingly looking for students or recent graduates with engineering backgrounds. That means software or hardware engineering—or, in the case of The MathWorks, experience with real-time or control systems or signals. Many hiring managers believe such training enhances a candidates potential for contributing on product designs, experts say.

In addition to technical skills, many employers are looking for students whose passion for technology surpasses anything that can be contained within classroom walls.

"Weve seen students whove developed databases and Web sites, those who developed sites to run their families businesses," said McCreary, whos based in Charlotte, N.C. "Some have written their own games. Or theyve created opportunities for the world around them: community service, where people have decided to go help Habitat for Humanity set up a membership database. Theyre going beyond what theyd get for skills in the classroom."

Unfortunately for entry-level candidates seeking to satisfy employers that increasingly demand knowledge of the latest technologies, universities have not always been adept at keeping up with rapidly shifting technology trends. Many educators downplay employer-driven requests for graduates sporting the skill du jour, pointing out that students would be stuck with soon-to-be-outdated skills, were that the focus.

"If two years ago, we had taught everyone about [Component Object Model], where would all those students be with .Net?" asked Richard Rasala, associate dean for undergraduate education at Northeastern Universitys College of Computer Science, in Boston.

Now, however, at least partly in response to the tough IT job market, schools such as the University of Minnesota, Crookston, are attempting to react quickly to market demands. The college last year added a messaging systems course because companies were looking for people with backgrounds in Microsoft Exchange and IBMs Lotus divisions Notes as they began to address unified messaging of voice, e-mail and fax systems.

Systems security and hacking courses were also added, again at the request of employers, said Bruce Brorson, program manager of the Information Technology Management degree programs and an eWeek Corporate Partner. The latest requests from employers have prompted the school to roll out application development courses using Macromedia Inc.s Dreamweaver, ColdFusion and Flash MX.

But the most loudly voiced demands center on Web-driven application development. For example, local hospitals such as Riverview Hospital, in Crookston, are looking for server-side skills as they move to dynamic Web site development for projects such as online patient databases, according to Bruce Lim, assistant professor of IT management and director of the universitys Instructional Technology Center. Insurance companies and training companies are sniffing around for graduates with gaming skills to apply to e-learning applications. Besides facility with a joystick, such skills encompass plenty of math and physics, as well as C++ and Java.

Once IT students graduate with such in-demand skills, there are other tactics that can serve them well. Gary Bronson, enterprise operations manager for Washington Group International Inc., in Boise, Idaho, and an eWeek Corporate Partner, recommended that entry-level IT workers head for a region or city that has many large companies, such as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston or Texas. Larger markets and larger companies have more spots for entry-level people.

In contrast, smaller operations such as Washington Group Internationals data center—which employs 28 people, including Bronson—demand only technology workers who can be instantly productive.

Thats a tough, albeit understandable, stance. Its also very common now. Indeed, in times like these, one has to admit: If you can swing it, working for dad may not be so bad after all.

IT Careers Managing Editor Lisa Vaas can be reached at

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