By David Brindley
GRADS ARE STILL FINDING GOOD JOBS, ALTHOUGH IT TAKES A LITTLE LONGER
AND THEY'RE FIELDING FEWER OFFERS THAN LAST YEAR.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, the moral fantasy novel by Oscar Wilde,
the title character retains his youth and handsome looks over
the years while a hidden portrait of him records every blemish
and evil deed, morphing into someone who looks truly hideous.
more, Wilde's classic pact-with-the-devil tale is a metaphor for
the New Economy, which was supposed to have replaced the ups and
downs of economic cycles of yore. There are clear signs that the
Old Economy is rearing its ugly head. And it's not a pretty picture.
past year, U.S. manufacturers have laid off more than 675,000
employees; dying dot-coms alone have put an estimated 100,000
people out of work. The longest economic expansion on record may
have come to an end. Last June, the National Bureau of Economic
Research, the official arbiter of business cycles, reported that
there is now "the possibility that a recession began recently."
that high tech, hit with a one-two punch of a broader slowdown
and retrenchment in the telecom sector, has suffered the most.
But the effects of a slowing economy are rippling through every
sector of the economy--making it a little tougher for new engineering
Nathan Campeau what a difference a year can make. Last fall the
bright, enthusiastic and self-assured civil engineering senior
at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. approached
his job search with high expectations. And why not? After all,
he had seen previous graduates garner offers by the bucketful
and had heard rumors of signing bonuses that would make non-techies
bitter with envy.
friends in the class of 2000 applied to companies, they were given
an interview on the spot." Campeau says. "Basically the interview
was just to make sure that they weren't going to blow the place
up, because every place needed warm bodies."
the valedictorian thought he had it made when he started sending
out resumes. But as Campeau quickly learned, when high-tech fever
catches a serious cold, everyone sneezes. Campeau's thirty-odd
job inquiries led to only a handful of interviews, and even fewer
get as many job offers as I would've liked, but I did get a job
offer for the job that I wanted," Campeau explains. That was with
Accenture, which included a signing bonus and a position in Minneapolis,
his hometown, starting in July. He was all set--or so he thought.
Campeau learned that Accenture had pushed back his starting date
until as late as next February. Three days later, due to a slowdown
in client spending and a decrease in its attrition rate, the company
announced layoffs. At that point, Campeau decided that it wasn't
such a good idea to start his career with a company that was laying
off people. "When I spoke with Accenture and turned down the offer,
their response was "Oh, good," Campeau says with a shrug.
get as many job offers as I would've liked, but I did get a job
offer for the job that I wanted," Campeau explains . . . He was
all set--or so he thought.
engineering schools across the country are actually taking the
slowing economy in stride. Most schools contacted for this article
reported only a mild impact on job prospects for their students.
Some even welcomed the cooling off as a chance to step back from
the hurly-burly pace of a roaring economy.
technology economy can create short-term distortions that are
hard to deal with," says Dick Yue, associate dean of engineering
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "A much more reasoned
growth rate is better. So the slowing economy is a positive development
in that we can think in the medium- to long-term and allocate
resources more wisely." Rick McClintic, associate director of
Penn State's engineering co-op, says that there were fewer signing
bonuses this year and stock options weren't as attractive, but
there were still good options for open-minded students who didn't
wait until the last minute to start looking for jobs. "Students
are focusing more on traditional engineering companies rather
than dot-coms and consulting, because a lot of those opportunities
dried up." In general, McClintic says that engineers are the most
aggressively recruited students at Penn State.
executive director for George Washington University's career center,
says that technical fields continue to have an overwhelming need
for new talent. "Technology is continuing to grow--it's not stopping.
The perks were not as generous as they were in the past, but I
think, quite frankly, that some of them were over the top." Gumbs
points out that the federal government is anticipating a big loss
of the baby boomer workforce by 2005, so it's looking to colleges
for new talent. "The federal government could become the new big
employer," Gumbs says.
As for job
prospects, many firms anticipate hiring in the fall. Job fairs
during the coming semester at universities across the country
are booked to capacity. And while companies could cancel if the
economy doesn't improve, their plans for on-campus recruiting
belie any reservations they may have in this economic climate.
They want to be prepared for when the economy turns around.
some job offers have been postponed--or even rescinded--the offers
are still coming, if only at a slower pace. Rather than getting
six or seven offers, as students in previous years have, the members
of the class of 2001 may be getting three or four.
of the economic slowdown has been relatively insignificant," says
Kathy Sims, director of the career center at the University of
California at Los Angeles. "Students are still considering multiple
offers." Sims also notes that the school had its best recruiting
year ever, with 250 organizations participating in career fairs
this year, 10 percent higher than the previous year.
slowing economy has impacted students in computer science and
electrical engineering fields at MIT, "most of the other engineering
fields have not been affected," says Chris Pratt, director of
career services. Nearly 600 employers attended Penn State's full-time
technical recruiting job fair this past year, and the waiting
list had 100 companies.
issued by the Information Technology Association of America last
April concurs, showing that while demand for some high-tech jobs
had slowed this year, companies are still looking for workers
who possess a strong grounding in technology.
are also borne out in the experience of two recent engineering
graduates who found that while some opportunities dried up, there
are still jobs to be had in many engineering fields.
Cooper, who graduated with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering
from UCLA this year. Feeling burned out after years of arduous
classes, Cooper says she "was looking at everything but engineering,"
and had her eye on a consulting career. But when it came to interviewing
in the winter quarter, Cooper was out of luck since consulting
companies were only recruiting for summer positions. Instead,
Cooper took a full-time position with Boeing Satellite Systems
in El Segundo, California, where she is currently working as a
dynamics analyst. "A lot of my peers were considering not going
into engineering but pretty much all of us have ended up going
It's a route
that Kristy McDonnell is taking as well. After graduating with
a master's in civil engineering from George Washington University,
McDonnell was all set to start working at a small energy consulting
firm in Annapolis, Maryland, only to learn that the company had
just gone through a merger that left her position in jeopardy.
"I haven't written them off yet," says a wary McDonnell. "I'd
like to work for them if it's stable, but I'm not sure that I
want to start there and a couple of weeks later get laid off."
In the meantime, she started looking for a new job. Still, McDonnell
remains optimistic on her chances: "Starting over again, I'm more
frustrated than I am worried. Engineers have a little easier time
getting jobs even in a slowing economy than other students. They
seem to be more marketable and more diverse in the jobs they can
may be true, in a tightening labor market, new graduates may have
to work a little harder to land the plum jobs--especially as they
find themselves competing with more experienced engineers caught
in the recent wave of layoffs.
Pratt says that "students will need to be more proactive and focused
in their job search--knowing what it is they are interested in
doing. Having projects that have an industry connection is a plus."
backup plan is a good idea, too. After Nathan Campeau's job fell
through with Accenture, he decided to enroll in a master's program
at George Washington. "Luckily, I had an offer on the table to
go to grad school. I'm one of the fortunate ones in that I had
a backup plan, even though I didn't realize I had a backup plan."
just students and schools that need to get smarter, though. The
same goes for companies that have to learn new ways to deal with
the ups and downs of the New Economy, not least of all in managing
the engineering workforce. That is a lesson that Cisco Systems,
the San Jose, California-based Internet hardware manufacturer,
had to learn the hard way.
year, Cisco reigned as the most valuable corporation on earth,
but it was slow to react after orders started tapering off last
fall. Mistakenly anticipating higher sales, the company boosted
its ranks by 5,000 workers between last November and March this
year. But as business worsened, Cisco reversed gears and announced
8,500 layoffs, 18 percent of total employment, in April and is
reported to be paying severance to college students who decline
promised job offers. In a rare burst of corporate honesty, chief
executive John Chambers conceded in a Wall Street Journal article
that he probably could have avoided layoffs if he had implemented
a hiring freeze last fall.
as it is cutting costs by slashing its workforce, Cisco has implemented
an unusual program that seeks to keep employees within its family--the
easier to lure back valuable workers once its fortunes rebound.
In lieu of a severance package, employees can opt to receive one-third
their salary, all benefits and stock options for a year if they
work at a nonprofit group already associated with Cisco. So far,
more than 200 employees have expressed interest in the alternative
rather than laying off its professional staff, the company announced
last June that it was encouraging up to 800 consultants to take
voluntary sabbaticals for up to one year and receive 20 percent
of their salaries plus full benefits. In addition to saving substantial
amounts on wages, the program allows the company to save on recruiting
and training costs down the line, while avoiding morale-killing
layoffs. Accenture reports that more than 1,500 employees are
interested in the program.
the slowdown hasn't affected all companies equally. And those
companies with a longer track record already have ways to deal
with economic swings. According to David Swain, senior vice president
for engineering and technology and chief technology officer at
Boeing, the fallout from a slowing economy will be small. "Even
if there is an impact, it won't be felt for a couple of years,
and that will only affect the delivery of our airplanes. Our need
for engineers is more driven by our development cycles."
that means that even though Boeing announced 600 layoffs at its
commercial-aircraft plant in Long Beach, California, in May, it
had already moved its staff of engineers on the project to other
factor, however, remains unknown: Is the New Economy dead? If
so, how severe and how long will an ensuing downturn last? Even
Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, doesn't
know the answer. And while history holds no sure answers, one
need only turn the clock back a decade to see the effects: less
corporate sponsorship on campuses, less R&D funding from the
government, and fewer job prospects for students.
consensus, however, is that the economy is only going through
a mild slowdown and that it will pick up by the end of the year.
After all, it's easy to imagine that the economy could turn around
this year just as quickly as it took a downturn last year.
a pessimist would point out that Greenspan missed the start of
the last recession, in 1990-91. Not to mention the fact that when
Dorian Gray destroys the painting at the end of Wilde's novel,
his face takes on the hideous features of the portrait and he
"A lot of
my peers were considering not going into engineering but pretty
much all of us ended up going that route." Nandi
Brindley is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
INWARD FOR I.T. WORKERS
global economy, one country's loss doesn't always equal another
country's gain. Take, for instance, the brain drain in developing
countries, that is, the loss of skilled workers and students that
leave for better opportunities in developed countries. The corollary
for this drain is a brain gain in the United States. But is this
necessarily a good thing?
doubt that the U.S. benefits from being a magnet for the world's
smartest people. In fact, the benefits have been dramatic. It
is estimated that roughly one-third of the economic growth in
America has come from information technology. And according to
B. Lindsay Lowell, director of research at the Institute for the
Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, 20
percent of I.T. workers in the U.S. are foreign born. Of those,
about half are here on H-1B visas, which allow skilled foreigners
to be employed in the U.S. for up to six years.
also plays a major role on campuses. According to government figures,
in 1998, the most recent year available, 35 percent of all high-tech
master's degrees at U.S. universities went to foreign nationals,
as did roughly half of all high-tech doctorates. Those figures
have many people worried. Dick Yue, associate dean of engineering
at MIT, says that many engineering school administrators are concerned
with an inability "to attract American students into graduate
programs, either master's or doctorates and I'm not sure that
I've seen that trend bottom out yet; it's not clear that we've
seen a turnaround."
on a steady stream of foreign talent to fill a gap in technical
positions is a risky long-term strategy at best. A recent study
by the National Science Foundation found that many countries,
from China and South Korea to Chile and Argentina, are implementing
programs to retain students and young scientists. Continuing economic
development in underdeveloped countries will also play a hand
in keeping talent home. Since 1995, the number of Taiwanese graduate
students in American universities has fallen by 40 percent.
used to get lots of students from South Korea," Yue says,
"but that has not been the case for many yearsprobably
because they built up their own universities. We might be too
sure of ourselves that they will come."
students don't come, who will take their place? For Rick Ainsworth,
director of UCLA's Center for Excellence in Engineering and Diversity,
the answer is obvious: "If black and Hispanic students were
proportionately represented in engineering schools, we wouldn't
have a shortfall." Ainsworth points out that as the proportion
of students of color entering college increases, engineering schools
will need to attract those students to their programs or the overall
pool of talent will automatically shrink. It's worth noting that
at UCLA, minorities comprised ten percent of the graduating class
while foreign student visa holders made up twice that amount.
that segment of society could prove to be a costly mistake. "It's
very shortsighted not to invest in programs geared toward minority
students," says Ainsworth. "We need to develop domestic
talent and not just import it."