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Better Job Outlook for CS Grads

But seniors advised to start job search early

BY GARY TUFEL

Job prospects are on a lot of minds these days, especially those of college seniors about to enter the workforce. What’s the outlook for new computer science and engineering grads in this fragile economy? Will they continue to be highly sought after by private industry, academia, and government?

Education and Training

Despite the reduced job market outlook for college grads overall, CS grads will have somewhat better opportunities than most, due to the law of supply and demand. “We don’t have enough CS grads and employers can’t get enough of them. The supply is small this year and will remain small for a few more years,” said Phil Gardner, director of Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute and author of MSU’s 2008-2009 Recruiting Trends study.

Focus on career goals

According to the Recruiting Trends study, small, fast-growing companies will provide the best employment opportunities for college graduates. But since the hiring forecast is for slower growth, students better be ready now, Gardner advised. He said those who have focused career goals, started their job search early, and stacked up internships will have a decided advantage.

Employers actually expect to hire fewer grads this year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which resurveyed employers in late October to document the affects of the economic crisis. In August, only one-third of the employers said they would reduce their college hiring this year. By October, more than half expected to hire fewer college grads than last year.

All sectors affected

The reduced outlook for the Class of 2009 is being felt across all sectors except government, where a 20 percent increase in hiring is expected. Agriculture, construction, and distribution all foresee double-digit declines. Finance and insurance, trade, and business services employers also predict significant reductions in the amount of hiring, while the outlook for manufacturing and professional services is flat.

“Consequently, many of this year’s graduates will find fewer openings available to them and may have to consider different types of opportunities, industries, and organizations than they planned,” stated NACE Executive Director Mailyn Mackes. She advised grads to take advantage of their campus career centers to help find and connect with potential employers.

Computer science not immune

As an indicator of potential job prospects, graduating CS majors consistently receive some of the highest starting salary offers among all majors, according to NACE. And CS majors saw a 4.5 percent increase in salary offers between 2006 and 2007.

Jay Vegso, manager of information services for the Computing Research Association, said he doesn’t expect CS to be immune from the current economic crisis. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics had previously predicted that information technology positions would account for 1 of every 19 new jobs created between 2006 and 2016. "It’s very difficult to say how much the current situation will impact that prediction,” Vegso said. “However, there will be an impact; I’m guessing there will be some CS unemployment and difficulty among graduates in finding jobs, but not long-term because there’s a built-in demand for these employees and there’s a very strong demand in the overall economy for IT graduates in general.”

He added that the new Obama administration might have a downward impact on CS jobs in the military, with reduced overseas commitments, but not immediately, especially because military budgets have built-in requirements for CS and other positions.

The CRA’s survey of doctorate-granting programs has recently seen an upturn in computer science PhDs. But undergraduate CS enrollments are still recovering from the plunge they took after the dot-com crash. “Students were afraid of IT then, much like the current fear of jobs in the financial sector. There’s a renewed interest in IT careers, which offer high salaries and are a safe bet for grads. And it’s not only the salaries – there’s interest in IT among graduates,” Vegso said.

Some skillsets still in demand

There’s less demand for some job titles, such as programmers, but other IT skillsets remain in demand, including computer software engineers. While there will undoubtedly be cutbacks overall, he doesn’t expect IT to be particularly hard hit.

Overseas, Vegso said India is still dealing with pent-up demand for IT workers. In China, as in India, there’s a large enough percentage of the workforce involved in IT that any slowdown shouldn’t be severe. “The chances of an overall slowdown in China are small because there’s enough demand to keep IT healthy,” he said.

Global economists predict negative economic growth for the next two years, followed by several years of sluggish growth. The bursting of the dot com bubble made it difficult for some CS grads to find jobs during the last downturn, but this time around, tech grads could fare much better. “CS is not a bed of roses but CS grads will be better off than anyone else, as long as they take advantage of career counseling, job placement services and other opportunities their universities offer,” Gardner said. CW (4 December, 2008)

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