Recruiting a fresh perspective
IN A FEW WEEKS, college campuses will empty and thousands of fresh-faced new
graduates will leave academia and head into the work world. For those with degrees in
computer science, engineering, or other information technology-related field, a good
job with any number of companies is theirs for the asking. The question is, what will
win them over? Early feedback from some soon-to-graduated seniors suggests that
companies may be missing the mark when talking to young people about their futures in
One college senior, who asked not to be named, says that recruiters say anything to
get her to sign on with their companies.
"It's nice to be in demand. It's flattering to have these companies more or less
kowtowing at your feet to get you to accept their offer," says the student, a computer
science major at an East Coast university. "But at the same time, I feel like I'm just
fresh meat for businesses to chow on."
The pressure is understandable. With hundreds of thousands of IT jobs vacant in the
United States, attracting and retaining IT personnel is a top priority at most
companies. Without a supply of skilled workers, many companies would experience a
slowdown in their growth and could lose some competitive edge.
"For many companies, [college students are] the only part of the labor pool that's
growing," says Phil Gardner, director of research at Michigan State University Career
Services and Placement. "The labor pool that exists is tapped; we've got such a low
unemployment rate. [Companies are] really ganging up on anything new that's coming
in ... everything else is getting shifted around within the labor market because it's
For graduates, that makes for a job market in which companies are competing
aggressively to hire them. But picking a job after college is an important first step
in their careers, and few young people are going to be pressured into a job that isn't
exactly right for them.
Money isn't everything
Chief among graduating seniors' concerns is finding a good work environment: a
culture, co-workers, and dress code that suits them.
"It's all about where I feel most comfortable," says a student at University of
California, Berkeley. "If I'm going to be working my tail off for a company, I'd like
to be in a relaxed place and comfy clothes because it takes a little pressure off one
part of your life -- some people call it the 'fun factor.' Assuming co-workers are
decent people and the salary is competitive, I would choose the company where I feel
like I fit in. It's one of those things you just 'know' from the first on-site
Graduates are looking for work that is challenging and engaging, where they can
feel a sense of independence, take responsibility, and learn new skills. Others say job
location, a cool boss, and a laid-back atmosphere are key. Of course, money never
"No matter how anybody spends it, money is always a deciding factor," says Brian
Krueger, Webmaster at Collegegrad.ccom and author of College Grad Job Hunter. "But a
lot of times, it's the corporate culture that ends up being just as important. It's not
enough just what the job is; a lot of it has to do with ... the work environment.
Companies have been very savvy about playing to that and giving people different
options and areas of flexibility in that regard."
Tales of Internet billionaires and overnight IPO wealth from stock options have
bloated expectations of new workers. Certainly, salaries for entry-level IT positions
are higher than they've ever been in history. But not every new recruit is looking to
strike it rich. According to MSU's Gartner, young people may not enjoy taking the risks
associated with working at or founding a start-up company any more than their older,
more experienced peers do.
"The new college graduates bring some advantages in the sense that they tend to be
a little more computer-savvy and willing to explore, but they're surprisingly afraid of
failure, so they don't take a lot of risks, and they're fairly cautious," Gartner says.
Even at the graduate-school level, only about 16 percent of this year's MBA
graduates are expected to start their own businesses, says Sherrie Gong Taguchi,
assistant dean and director of the Stanford MBA Career Management Center. The high
concentration of capital, ideas, and talent in Silicon Valley is a strong lure for the
budding entrepreneur, but there are so many new technology companies, and so many
untried business models, that recent graduates have a hard time evaluating their
chances of success. Graduates also face pressure from all the hype around dot-coms, she
"Sometimes there is a herd mentality in that if one is not in a start-up, it's not
cool, or those in other industries think 'I'm missing out if I don't jump in,'" Taguchi
says. "The thoughtful ones understand that lifelong, it's really about doing what makes
you happy, however you define that, and having the courage to do what you want to do;
how you define success and fulfillment."
Landing the job
Most graduates start their IT-related career search using the resources of their
college or university, often getting their start at job fairs or through on-campus
recruiting programs. This is where competition to attract the best and brightest can be
fiercest for companies. At Stanford University last year, 870 companies were recruiting
its business school's 720 MBA candidates. This year, Stanford's Taguchi expects more
than 1,000 companies to come to campus in search of new hires.
For students, it's a great way to examine their options.
"It's a little bit like having a home-court advantage," says a senior computer
science major UC Berkeley, graduating this June. "If the companies come to your school,
you feel more relaxed [because] they had to come to you rather than the other way
And top talent may never look farther than his or her own backyard for a career
start. For Jason Hahn, a UC Davis graduate now working as a software engineer for
database management software company Embarcadero Technologies, handing out a dozen
résumés at an on-campus engineering career fair and having a few on-campus
interviews resulted in follow-up calls from eight or nine companies. Of those, five
companies pursued him with requests for on-site interviews.
"This was all I really needed in order to get the options I wanted for my job
search," Hahn says. "The career fair and the on-campus interviews made it much easier
to find the kinds of jobs I was looking for. I could get specific about what I wanted
and see the specifics of what the companies wanted at the same time."
Companies too picky?
Although graduates enjoy the relative ease with which they can find good jobs, the
atmosphere can be intimidating. Evenn entry-level IT positions require particular
skills, such as Java, C++, or Oracle knowledge, and companies are always hoping for
candidates with a few years' experience in a work environment. At least one observer
thinks the companies may be focusing too much on what IT help they need, and not enough
on what's available in a tight labor market.
"One of the biggest problems out there now is that companies, especially in IT,
have started developing overly narrow job descriptions," says Nick Corcodilos, host of
online forum Ask the Headhunter and author of Ask the Headhunter. "Jobs will stay open
a long time because a company will argue, 'We haven't been able to find anybody who can
do A, B, and C.' Any talented software developer or programmer can really pick up and
learn just about anything, and yet these companies are turning good candidates down,"
Some companies are reluctant to provide skills training because they're afraid that
the additional skills will only make new hires more marketable and less likely to stay.
"Yes, they're going to [find other jobs], unless you give them something to really
hold onto; give them a career," Corcodilos adds.
But students are hip to the value of training. Many are looking to land in a place
that is going to invest in their personal and professional development over time.
"I'm looking for a place that will help me grow and give me the knowledge to do
good work," says the East Coast student. "Yes, there's money and benefits and all that,
but at the end of the day, I do not want to be bored or stuck in some corner doing rote
jobs or meaningless maintenance. I got enough of that in class. I put in my time to
learn at school; now I need to learn how the real world works."
Just as graduates are using the interview process to scope out the company's day-to-
day workings, hiring managers are trying to determine if a particular candidate will be
a good fit with their company. Popular tactics to get behind the front that job
applicants often present to an interviewer include behavioral questions and queries
about personal interests, collegegrad.com's Krueger says.
"I try to get through their interview face and get through to who they really are,"
Krueger says. "For a lot of students, they're usually not well trained in the whole
idea of interviewing. They didn't have to learn how to sell themselves, so their first
response is to try and fake their way through it by saying what they think the
interviewer wants to hear. But interviewers are savvy too, and we know how to get
through to people and find out what they're really all about and [if they are] going to
be a good long-term fit for our organization?"
From students' perspective, some of the ways interviewers choose to test them are
like a Chinese water torture. Take, for example, logic puzzles made infamous by
Microsoft's multistage hiring process. Hahn and other students encountered these
interviewing tactics repeatedly in their job searches.
"I was asked to do logic problems in every single on-site interview, and sometimes
I would be asked to do one for each of the three or four people interviewing me at a
particular company," Hahn says.
The most popular test was a "Let's Make A Deal" type of problem that tested
applicants' logic and deductive reasoning abilities: Choose the winning door based on
probability. Hahn also says situational questions such as "Have you ever worked in a
group environment?" and "What was your favorite class and why?" were standard.
Using predictable interviewing methods can turn off some candidates, especially
those who are looking for flexible, creative work environments. But some grads say that
the rigmarole also can give more inexperienced candidates a chance to learn the ins
annd outs of interviewing.
"I have friends who consider the whole interviewing cycle to be a secret level of
hell from Dante's Inferno," says the East Coast student. "You really have to pick and
choose your interviews or you're just going to be overloaded, especially because nearly
everyone seems to ask variations of the same questions: something about your personal
life, your class work, and your future. Of course, this does give you the chance to
really plan out your answers for those interviews where you really want to make a good