Learning tree

Class of '08 will swell ranks of IT service providers

Most college seniors should not expect to find as welcoming a job market after graduation as the Class of 2007 did. Employers say they plan to hire only 8 percent more new graduates than they did last year.

If that projection holds true, the Class of 2008 would end a trend of four consecutive years of double-digit growth in college graduate hiring, according to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

But that downward trend does not appear to affect the employment prospects for graduates with degrees in information technology, computer sciences and engineering, especially for those seeking jobs with large federal contractors. Several Top 100 companies and major technology vendors have programs in place that target new college graduates.

For example, SRA International Inc., No. 32 on the Top 100, plans to hire several hundred college graduates this year. That would be an increase of between 50 percent and 70 percent compared to last year, said Mary Good, senior vice president of human resources at SRA. "One of the best ways to feed the pipeline of talent into the organization is to look at the college population," she said.

"We're looking to actually increase our hiring of college students this year by about 30 percent," said Fred DiSalvo, sector director of staffing at Northrop Grumman Information Technology. Northrop is No. 3 on the Top 100. "We think the [job] market is strong."

Sun Microsystems Corp. is also expecting to increase the number of graduates it hires this summer, said Mike Bugaj, Sun's director of human resources for the Americas. He is responsible for hiring for Sun Federal and the sales and services team for the United States, Canada and Latin America. "We're really focused on the software engineers that are being produced by the finer institutions," he said.

That is the same talent pool that General Dynamics Information Technology will be fishing in, said Colleen Nicoll, the company's senior manager of staffing and recruiting. General Dynamics is No. 6 on the Top 100.

"We're all recruiting for the same type of skills, the hard-to-find Java skills, Web-developer skills, and so on," she said. "There is a lot of competition in this area." And the salaries and benefits packages being offered are similar to students who "are a lot more technically savvy than they were even three or four years ago."

Those comments do not surprise Sarah Stafford, associate director of corporate relations at George Mason University's Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering in Fairfax, Va. She said the university's IT graduates have no trouble finding jobs.

"I get daily requests for students, especially from government contractors," she said. "For example, in our systems engineering program, which is not our largest program, all our students have jobs before they even finish."

Groundbreaking programs

With such high demand, government contractors have developed innovative programs to mesh their needs and those of the students they hope to hire. And most companies are not waiting until the recruits have their diplomas.

"We are increasing our visibility at the local colleges and universities in the area," Nicoll said, using intern programs, alumni groups and peer referrals to help recruit students to General Dynamics IT.

"Our goal is to convert 60 percent of our interns [to full-time employees] every year," DiSalvo said. Northrop Grumman expects to hire about 150 interns this summer, he said.

To attract new employees, Northrop Grumman also offers the opportunity to work remotely on a full-time or part-time basis. In addition, last year, the company began opening national workforce centers in areas with lower costs of living than many urban centers.

The centers, which are in such places as Fairmont, W.Va., Rapid City, S.D., and Corsicana, Texas, will employ about 300 people when fully staffed. "But we are not there yet," DiSalvo said. For the first year, the centers will hire between 30 and 70 new employees.

Northrop Grumman views the centers as an alternative to sending jobs overseas, he said. "They allow us to work with some of the schools and colleges that have not traditionally been on the list of [recruiting efforts by] big companies."

As an example, he cited Montana State University, whose growing prominence as a research center helped raise the school's ranking into the Carnegie Foundation's top tier of research universities. But at a recruiting event on campus, "most of the students had never heard of Northrop Grumman, surprising as that may be," DiSalvo said.

Nevertheless, of the 25 students who showed up at the session, 15 returned for a full interview the next day and eight students eventually were hired. "That's a great ratio for us to be able to hire that many," DiSalvo said.

Sun recruits new IT and sales talent through its Campus Ambassador program. The voluntary program has several hundred participants, mostly on the West Coast, and gives Sun a presence on numerous campuses. It also lets students know that the company is constantly hiring, Bugaj said.

"Kids are writing code on our products," he said. "So it's a natural for us to want to develop them and work with the campuses to produce candidates."

The company is also always on the lookout for good sales talent for Sun Federal, the division that sells Sun's products to the government, Bugaj said. That talent is often found in the colleges of business administration, he said.

This year, Sun is reintroducing a one-on-one mentoring program at Sun Federal that also allows new employees to work the first year without fear of losing their job by making a mistake. The goal is to build expertise and retain successful employees, he said.

Security clearance issues

One of the few impediments to a quick start at a government contractor is the lengthy security clearance process, Stafford said. That's why so many companies have intern programs and hire students part-time while they are still in school. Students and employers get a head start.

"So by the time they graduate, they are often ready to go" to work as a cleared, full-time employee, she said.

"As soon as somebody comes to work for us as an intern, it might be in the sophomore year, for example, we put them in for clearances because it takes anywhere from a year and a half to two years to get the level of clearance we're looking for," DiSalvo said. "That's our game plan and why [we place an] emphasis on interns."

The weak economy is also affecting how graduates and employers view the job market this year. Sun and other companies are looking at each candidate "more carefully and with more scrutiny than we were a year ago," Bugaj said.

"I do think the college graduates coming out are very interested in salary, and I think it's just because everything has gotten so expensive," Nicoll said. "Flexibility is another big thing too because the 8 to 5 [workday] has changed."

Students are seeking those companies that offer flexible schedules. They also ask a lot of questions about benefits, she said.

Bugaj said he is concerned that economic uncertainties will affect the promotion opportunities for newly recruited workers. "I am worried that some of our managers will overlook the new talent to minimize risk," he said. "A new person coming in is high risk, high potential. And the proven performer is someone who's been in the business for a while and has the track record."

But he added that for now and the future "certainly bringing in new faces and new blood is essential to the company."

David Hubler (dhubler@1105govinfo.com) is associate editor at Washington Technology.

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