A sunny hiring season for job seekers

As unemployment rates dip below peak dot-com boom levels, companies are competing fiercely for the brightest new college grads.Google's strategy for hiring young talentGetting hired via social network
Written by Miriam Olsson, Contributor
It's recruiting season and the forecast looks sunny for job seekers, so long as they're talented and willing to work at landing employment.

That's the consensus among analysts, students and big company recruiters who are struggling to find enough qualified applicants to fill their posts.

The overall unemployment rate for the computer industry at the end of last quarter was 2.1 percent, which is even lower than the 2.3 percent rate during the same quarter in 2000, the peak of the dot-com boom. Things are particularly bright for software engineers, whose unemployment rate was down to 0.9 percent last quarter, compared to 1.9 percent during the same period in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Jobs openings have peaked in the last nine months, said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer for Challenger, Gray & Christmas, whose placement firm crunches job market data. "In total of tech jobs, we're probably in a better position than we've ever been."

"From being an employers' market four years ago, it's now an employee-driven market."
--Sean Norris, Sapphire Technologies

This year's batch of students with degrees in engineering and computer science can take advantage of a job market that's grown steadily over the last four year years. Challenger cited Labor Department statistics showing unemployment for recent tech grads down to 2 percent.

"In the tight labor market there are many companies which are eagerly awaiting the new graduates," Challenger said. "They bring in new skills and expertise and they are not as high priced."

Silicon Valley, a bellwether for the overall tech industry, has also seen this steady growth, said Sean Norris, branch manager for Sapphire Technologies' San Francisco Bay Area IT recruiting office.

"From being an employers' market four years ago, it's now an employee-driven market," Norris said.

Competition fierce
Spring and summer are busy hiring times for companies and graduating students. But the recruiting process take place throughout the year through the likes of job fairs, lectures, alumni events and on-campus interviews.

Companies like Google, Microsoft and IBM put huge amounts of people, time and money into recruiting students, although they're unable to assign specific dollar figures to such efforts.

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IBM, for example, spends much more than $100 million on student activities annually, said Gina Poole, the company's vice president of innovation and university relations. "You can't even begin to count the time IBMers put into this," she said.

IBM has even created its own academic discipline, Services, Sciences, Management and Engineering (SSME) to help ensure future recruits will have the skill set the company looking for.

"For today and even more so in the future, we are working with universities around the world to make sure that they are delivering this pipeline of students," Poole said, in order "to meet the needs for us, or clients and business partners."

Like IBM and others, Microsoft is working hard to fill open positions. "We don't have trouble finding people," said Microsoft Technical Staffing Manager Jeremy Brigg, "but the pool of qualified folks in tech as a whole has shrunken in the U.S."

Microsoft is looking to hire 2,500 students this year, a combination of full-time and intern candidates. It would like to hire even more, but there are just not enough students with technical skills, Brigg said.

That shortage has been documented by various agencies, including Challenger's, which also noted an increasing demand for people who have "softer skills" that go beyond technical abilities. "I think that companies are putting a premium on tech workers who have a good EQ," as opposed to just IQ, Challenger said.

Google's intense recruitment efforts only fuel the shortage of qualified workers. The search giant last year hired 5,000 employees, "a significant chunk" of whom were just beginning their careers, said Google Staffing Programs Director Judy Gilbert. This year Google--which employees a total of 12,200 worldwide--will hire even more, she said, declining to elaborate on just how many.

Finding the right fit
Company recruiters have varying perspectives on what makes an employee qualified. IBM, for example, talks a lot about "preset skills"--many of which are developed through its SSME discipline--while Google is looking for employees it can catch early in their careers and mold.

"In general there are some things we are looking for in all Googlers. We look for people who are bright, curious and inquisitive about the world around them," Gilbert said, emphasizing the ability to work well in change and collaboration.

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Judy Gilbert, Google's director of staffing programs, discusses the Web giant's recruitment strategy.

"If you look at us during the last one, two or five years, we focused on areas that we didn't even think of five years ago," she said. "Similarly we don't know what is going to happen five years down the road from now and we want people who can be flexible."

A specific area of expertise is secondary for those newly entering the workforce, Gilbert said. "For recent graduates, we don't expect that (expertise), but we look for evidence that they dug in, that they solved a particular problem and that they have potential to learn more."

Many students are easily impressed by the prospect of working for a big technology company, but others, like Aditya Jhunjhunwala, recognize that more important than size and prominence is how a company feels and one's connection with the people there.

Jhunjhunwala, who has a master's degree in management science and engineering from Stanford University, has already had one job out of graduate school, but recently connected with his alma mater's career center on a new job hunt. This time around he won't make the mistake of being wooed by a company's size.

"Don't be flattered by big companies," said Jhunjhunwala, who has already received three job offers. "Look more at the positions and people and if they would fit you."

He also advises job seekers to apply for jobs online, but remember those applications can easily go into "the black hole" and that should be one of many ways of landing a job.

Huong Nguyen, a recent San Jose State University computer engineering graduate who landed a job at Hewlett-Packard, advises job seekers to stay motivated, be persistent and finish tasks companies give you during interviews. She also touts participation in student associations, recalling a Society of Women Engineers event she attended that gave her a chance to network with prospective employers and hand out her resume.

"Engage, get your name out there, don't expect the jobs to come to you," she said, also emphasizing the importance of finding an appropriate fit. "I did have other offers, but it's the atmosphere itself (that I liked). People are very friendly and it seemed right."

Brenda Phan, who like Nguyen just graduated from San Jose State with an engineering degree, has applied for a long list of jobs through various channels like the campus career center, e-mail and the posting of her resume on different company sites. She eventually landed some interviews and learned to be specific about the jobs for which she was applying. Being too general didn't take her anywhere, she said.

While it's a good time to graduate with tech degrees, clouds still loom in the distance. Challenger noted signs the economy is starting to slow. Dell and Motorola, for example, recently announced job cuts. But it's important to recognize other technology sectors that are steady or growing, he said. "Companies will continue to invest in skilled people to improve their edge."

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