Employers yearn for tech-smart grads

by Andrew Carter

In the last five years, the Internet has gone from being a relatively unknown computer network used by academia and government to, among other things, a fundamental business tool.
Companies are using the Internet and networking technologies to streamline their internal operations, electronically integrate themselves with other businesses, and, in some of the most lucrative ventures, take their products and services online. The job market hasn’t quite been blind to these changes.
In April, the U.S. Department of Commerce released a report with data indicating a massive shortage of qualified candidates to fill new high-tech jobs. According to their latest estimates, employers are short more than 100,000 employees every year. Atlanta-based consulting firm Boyett & Associates released a report stating that every one in four new jobs will be technical in nature.
The study also concludes that workers with strong technical skills are becoming the front-line workers in most organizations.
Despite all the hype surrounding e-businesses like Amazon.com, Yahoo! and Earthweb, some employers and media outlets seem overzealous in the emphasis they place on technical prowess.
“I think it’s slightly overblown,” said Clare Foley, associate director of the career services center at the Carlson School of Management. “The basic package hasn’t changed a lot. Employers want leaders. They want people who can communicate well. Students have to be able to use technology to solve business problems, but they don’t, for instance, have to be able to program. They don’t have to be high-techies.”
Lynn Palschko, director of people development at Pillsbury Corp., echoed Foley’s sentiment: “It is important for applicants to be familiar with technology tools because that’s how we get the work done today. But we have not increased our recruitment of math, science and engineering majors.”
Misunderstanding new technologies has also contributed to this not-so-recent demand for tech-savvy people. Businesses racing to get up to speed with technology make the inaccurate assumption that their staff has to have an entirely technical background.
Sharon Kurtt, director of career services for the Institute of Technology explains that “many companies are beginning to realize that they need to go beyond looking at computer science majors in order to get the number of people they need. They think they need computer science majors to create (World Wide) Web pages and Web applications for them.
“But that may not necessarily be the case. Anybody who’s interested can teach themselves how to use these applications.”
Despite the somewhat erroneous demand for computer scientists, Kurtt did emphasize that the job market has in fact changed, and that students would be wise to take note.
“Every job today is somehow touched by technology and to be successful in today’s work world you have to be comfortable using technology in order to take full advantage of the technical resources that are available,” said Kurtt. “I don’t think it could hurt anybody to get some more math, science, and computer skills under their belts,” especially since scientists and engineers, long stereotyped as reclusive technophiles, are beginning to be valued for their analytical and problem-solving ability.
According to both Kurtt and Foley, there has been a large shift toward business consulting in recent years and these companies are looking toward IT to provide them with people capable of analyzing today’s fast paced business environment. For example, 37 percent of the business analysts at McKinsey & Company, one of the more prestigious consulting firms, come from the engineering and science backgrounds, whereas only 11 percent are graduates of business schools.
Randy Karels, who recently graduated summa cum laude in electrical engineering this spring, noticed this firsthand as he finished his job interviews this fall.
“I felt that the engineering training gave me the problem solving skills that employers wanted,” said Karels, who recently signed on with Delloite and Touche Consulting. “Since it is perceived as a rigorous major intellectually, I felt that doing well in engineering raised a lot of eyebrows during the interview process.”