Tables Turned On Job Seekers

Ask Not What the Company Can Do for You, But What You Can Do for the Company<@VM>College Grads Still in the Job-Hunting Driver's Seat

Bethann Gilfeather

Kerri Koss Morehart

Pat Dawson

Six months ago, promoting DynCorp at a job fair was a totally different experience than it is today, said Debbie Elk, corporate human resources manager for the government systems integrator in Reston, Va.

Then, "people were much more picky" and expected the DynCorp representatives to wow them, Elk said. "They were asking a lot more questions about what the company could offer them, as opposed to what they could bring to you."

Now, the tables have turned, Elk said. Candidates are now asking for the opportunity to show what they can offer DynCorp. "It's nice," she said.

David Reed, director of U.S. recruiting for Chicago-based Accenture, also has seen a dramatic shift in the market for information technology workers.

"We came out of a period of fierce and unprecedented competition four months ago," Reed said. "[Declining] corporate earnings and other macroeconomic concerns and the demise of some start-ups has thrown some water on the raging inferno of dot-com-itis."

As a result, the IT consulting company has been able to attract more employees and retain more of its workers, Reed said.

A survey released March 7 by the Federal Reserve Board backs up the recruiters' impressions. Although labor markets remain tight, the demand for IT workers has eased somewhat, the survey found. Layoffs in the Atlanta, Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis and San Francisco districts have eased shortages of tech workers, and Boston and New York firms reported a drop in competition from dot-coms.

In the Richmond, Va., district, which includes Washington and Northern Virginia, and in the Atlanta district, turnover slowed among IT workers. San Francisco district employers reported that signing bonuses and special compensation packages were either smaller or no longer necessary to attract qualified workers.

According to the magazine Industry Standard, more than 62,000 workers at Internet-based businesses have been laid off since December 1999. And large, brick-and-mortar tech firms such as Lucent Technologies Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Xerox Corp. have recently laid off thousands, adding to the pool of available workers.

The change is refreshing, but employers know they can't relax.

"We've seen the pool of candidates grow dramatically over this time last year ... [but] it is still a tight market for skilled employees," said Andre Lynch, president and chief executive officer of Ingenium Corp., an e-business solutions firm in Upper Marlboro, Md.

"Any company that's going to be successful [recruiting] will have to stay focused and aggressive."

Layoffs put a new kind of pressure on recruiters, said Bethann Gilfeather, a senior vice president at Techie-Gold.com, a Boston-based career management company serving IT professionals.

"The more people on the market ... the more muscle you're going to need to go through those resumes," she said. "You've got to be able to navigate through the candidate base, and you need to do it quickly. Hot candidates are going off the markets as quickly as they were four months ago or two years ago."

Data from the Labor Department indicates the market for skilled IT professionals will remain hot for years to come. According to the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top five fastest-growing occupations between 1998 and 2008 are all in the high-tech sector.

Employment of computer engineers will grow 108 percent to 622,000; computer support specialist positions will grow 102 percent to 869,000.

Employment of systems analysts will increase 94 percent to 1.194 million, and database administration positions will grow 77 percent to 155,000. Desktop publishing specialist jobs will grow 73 percent to 44,000.

"No computer scientist in this area should be unemployed," said Anna Verruno, manager of recruitment for Cognos Inc., a business intelligence software firm in Ottawa, home of about a thousand high-tech companies.

When tech firms lay off employees in Ottawa, "it's all hands on deck" for the recruiters at Cognos, Verruno said. "These people aren't going to be available very long."

The situation is the same in the Washington metropolitan area, said Kerri Koss Morehart, director of recruiting for systems integrator SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va.

"It doesn't matter what the market is like. Good people don't need to wait [for new jobs]. We have to move quickly," she said.

Mary Ellen Brantley, an Atlanta human re-sources consultant and author of the new book, "Winning the Technology Talent War," said great recruiters follow the careers of stellar IT workers.

"The really smart ones get to understand who the good players are, and they establish a relationship with them. They try and find out a lot about the person, so when they have an opportunity, they can call them and speak with some credibility," she said.

Although it isn't any easier to recruit skilled tech workers, the messages companies send recruits have changed in light of the dot-com downturn, said Sean Huurman, national director of recruiting for KPMG Consulting Inc. of McLean, Va.

"Last year, it was very difficult to explain to people why they should come to KPMG Consulting. [Candidates thought] the Big Five way of doing things was no longer valid," he said.

Recruiters had to work hard to prove to candidates that the 10,000-employee consulting firm was as fast and entrepreneurial as the start-ups competing for their attention, Huurman said, while they also stressed the financial stability of the company.

"Now we're starting with the stability conversation and we're ending with the entrepreneurial conversation," he said. "It's an easy sell for some people that are still at some of these start-ups, but it's difficult to pull people out of our direct competitors."

To get their messages out, many recruiters use a variety of approaches, but employee referrals are their star source of new hires.

"We employ a little bit of everything: open houses, networking, online recruiting, referrals, job fairs, you name it," said Elizabeth Towson, a recruiting manager for Plano, Texas, systems integrator Electronic Data Systems Corp. Last year the company had 1,300 hires from employee referrals.

For their trouble, employees typically are rewarded with cash or prizes for successful referrals. EDS employees who make successful referrals are entered into monthly drawings for prizes such as computers and vacations, and an annual drawing for a car.

Employees at systems integrator Anteon Corp. in Fairfax, Va., get $250 to $1,000, and sometimes up to $3,000, for referring employees. The program nets about 30 percent of the company's new hires annually, said Pat Dawson, senior vice president for administration.

The company, in turn, gets employees who know a bit about the company and are likely to stay longer than the average recruit, Dawson said.

"They tend to be better employees," he said.Amber Batson, a senior at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, knows that times have changed.

"There is definitely a lot of opportunities, but I don't think the job market is as hot as it was a couple of years ago," said Batson, who will graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in management information systems.

Batson got four job offers after about 15 interviews. This summer she will join oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. in Houston as a systems analyst making $51,700 a year.

Last year, college students were cocky about their job prospects, "and justifiably so," said Steven Rothberg, president of Collegerecruiter.com, a Minneapolis-based career Web site for students and new alumni.

"They figured they could go backpacking [after graduation] and send out four applications and get 12 offers," he said. "This year's group is more nervous."

Batson had no plans to go backpacking. She interviewed with nearly every company that recruited information technology students on campus. To make a good impression, she first asked visiting employers what they look for in new graduates and tailored her approach accordingly.

Grade point average "is going to get your foot in the door first. And some job experience or leadership experience is going to help a lot," said Batson, president of the Texas Tech chapter of the Association of Information Technology Professionals and a tech support worker at the university medical center.

Despite their nervousness, students still have the upper hand in the job hunting process, said Ken Ramberg, president of Jobtrak Corp., a Los Angeles provider of online career centers to schools nationwide.

"There are still more jobs in IT for college grads than there are graduating seniors," Ramberg said. "We're still finding salaries going up, and students and graduates being in the driver's seat."

Starting salaries for engineering students are up about $3,000 to $46,500, and computer and information sciences students will earn about $48,000, up $2,000 from last year, he said. More than 60 percent of students expect to have two or more job offers by the time they graduate, Ramberg said.

IT students at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta are getting five to seven offers, said Ralph Mobley, career services director.

"Their dilemma isn't getting an offer; it's which one to choose. It makes them cocky and picky," said Mobley, a former recruiter for IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y.

"They want a challenging job that offers a great deal of opportunity and they want to be paid very well for it," he said. "Employers want their new ideas and their fresh innovations."

The on-campus climate is frustrating, said Anna Verruno, manager of recruitment for Cognos Inc., a business intelligence software firm in Ottawa.

Students "know they are a hot commodity," Verruno said. "When you offer them a job, they will thank you, but they aren't exactly jumping for joy. It's an expected thing."

Senior Jesse Smelser admitted he's one of the cocky students at Texas Tech, but after 17 interviews, he said his perspective has changed.

"I felt like [recruiters] would be all over you. But it's not like that at all. You have to put forth effort," said Smelser, vice president of the campus AITP chapter. He has accepted a programming job with Southwest Airlines Co. in Dallas, where he'll earn a $46,000 salary. His benefits will include free air travel, profit sharing and a matching 401(k) plan.

In recent years, students such as Smelser and Batson were likely to pick the job with the highest salary and stock options. Those jobs were often at high-flying dot-coms. Now that many Internet-based businesses have faltered, students' decisions are more calculated, industry observers said.

"College students are looking for experience. It is far more important than pay," Rothberg said. "They want to know they can step in and have an immediate impact on the organization. They want to know that there will be real opportunity for growth."

Students haven't shied away from working for start-ups altogether, Ramberg said. However, they won't leap into an Internet-based business before looking.

"They're still very interested in working for start-ups, but they want a strong business model, management team and salary. They look at stock options as a perk," Ramberg said.

For Smelser, finding the right company culture was paramount.

"You have to [consider] are you going to fit in and be happy, then the dollar amount and then the benefits. That's been my theory," he said. "At a consulting company I could have made a lot of money, but I wouldn't have fit in at all."

Employers' expectations have changed along with students' attitudes, Rothberg said. The number of companies that plan to hire new grads is up about 23 percent this year, he said.

"We heard so many stories last year from companies that said they had stopped doing all campus recruiting," Rothberg said, because they didn't think they could compete with the dot-coms. "Now, companies feel they have a very good chance of landing the kind of people they want."

KPMG Consulting Inc. of McLean, Va., for example, shrugged off campus recruiting in the past, but recruiters realized this year that it could be a valuable talent source, said Sean Huurman, national director of recruiting. The firm will at least double its number of college hires this year, he said.

The dot-coms "left about as quickly as they came, and now students are looking for employers that have been on campus for years and years and years. It's us vs. the other large consultancies and big-name corporations," Huurman said.

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