Lining Up for Jobs

As the next generation heads back to school, competition for jobs and internships heats up.

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.