Market blues

It’s tough to counsel patience to eager young people who are steeped in confidence-boosting career advice, their ears ringing with praise. It’s tougher still when they came of age in boom times.

All the same, college seniors and master’s candidates aiming for IT jobs face a much less welcoming employment scene than their predecessors did just two years ago.

It wasn’t so long ago that high-flying dot-coms and even Old Economy players from all corners were tossing fat salaries and hefty bonuses at tech-savvy students. But now, current degree candidates are getting a lesson in the virtues of networking and internships. To be sure, fewer entry-level IT candidates spent their spring break sifting through piles of offers.

MIT senior Carlos Armando Garcia, who landed a job at New York-based Merrill Lynch & Co.’s technology group in November, noticed a steep drop-off in employer attendance at campus job fairs. Most notably absent have been venture capital-fuelled start-ups, leaving the field to larger, established companies, according to the electrical engineering and computer science major.

A year or two ago, “about 80 per cent” of the companies at MIT’s job fairs “were software-related companies, start-ups or medium-size companies looking for programmers. They were offering salaries between (US)$60,000 and (US)$100,000. Now, the best salary you can get for an undergraduate is about (US)$55,000,” says Garcia, who hooked up with Merrill Lynch at an on-campus technical presentation given by the company.

“There are always opportunities out there, but it’s taking longer, and students have to try harder,” says Jan Kendall, a career counsellor at Boston University who works in BU’s science and engineering programs. “Two years ago, strong candidates were getting five and six offers and signing bonuses. Now, it’s not at all like that.”

Indeed, recruitment is down from its recent peak of 1999 and 2000, says Kendall. “Last year wasn’t the greatest, and this year is worse,” she adds.

Top or Bottom?

Whether the economy is near the end of a downslide or the beginning of a recovery, it’s clearly in low gear. Consequently, IT jobs once thought to be in endless supply are harder to come by.

According to a survey conducted last month by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in Bethlehem, Pa., companies across the board expect a 36 percent drop in their hiring of new graduates from all bachelor programs this year.

Among employer types covered in NACE’s winter 2002 salary survey, computer systems design, consulting and programming ranked 16th in terms of the number of job offers, down from 5th in 2001. The category’s average starting salary offer also fell from US$47,599 in 2001 to US$46,208 in 2002.

People who hold master’s degrees generally step higher onto the IT ladder, given their skills, but they face similarly diminished prospects.

The tight economy means more students are opting to stay in school, which allows them to forestall loan payments and bolster their skills. MIT’s popular five-year master’s program in electrical engineering and computer science saw a spike in interest from undergraduates looking to stay on this year, according to Garcia.

While the economic slump doesn’t change the basic skills required to land work, candidates can gain an edge if they meet employers’ demands for technologists who can put IT into business context.

Organizational skills are at the top of employers’ IT department wish lists, according to a survey by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. “By far, project management is top. It’s been an issue for years,” says analyst Tom Pohlmann. Strategic thinking and planning ranked No. 2 among the desirable skills sought by IT managers, Forrester says.

During the slump, Columbus, Ohio-based financial services giant Nationwide has reduced its hiring of new graduates and is relying more on its college internship program, according to Carolyn Highley, a senior recruiter in the systems departments at both Nationwide Insurance Co. and Nationwide Financial Services Inc. Still, the company hasn’t trimmed its internal training programs or tuition reimbursement, she notes.

And, as internal staffers move up, the IT pipeline will continue to be open. “With a company as large as Nationwide, we’re going to constantly need new people; we just don’t need them in the large numbers that we did before,” says Highley.

Favourable Figures

Despite the doom and gloom of the high-tech meltdown, the long-term demand for IT labour remains solid. Of the departments covered in Forrester’s report on white-collar personnel management, IT recruited the most and still cited a shortage of qualified candidates, indicating healthy long-term demand.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. workforce is expected to reach nearly 156 million by 2010, gaining roughly 22 million jobs. Computer and data processing services look to account for about 1.8 million of that increase, growing at a strong 86 per cent clip, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ted Smalley Bowen is a freelance writer in Boston. Contact him