Gigs -- and Gigabytes -- for Grads

The job market for information-technology grads is hot, but you'd better hone your people skills as well if you want to be really cool

It was the time in your life for some higher education, and it wasn't going to be the Sally Struthers School of Weight Reduction and Fingernail Repair. There it was, facing you -- college.

This was going to be expensive, and you didn't like the idea of, in 40 years, eating cat food and paying off student loans with the meager remains of your Social Security checks, so you were thinking: How am I going to make some good money? What are the hot jobs?

How about plastics? It had some good reviews.
The scene is the 1930s, in It's a Wonderful Life, and prospective college student George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) is urged by boyhood chum Sam Wainwright to put all his money into ... plastics.

Or, the scene is the 1960s, in The Graduate, and new college graduate Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) is cornered by his dad's buddy, Mr. McGuire, who says he has just one word for him ... plastics.

Or, the scene is the 1970s, in my life, and college student Mr. Mike (played by me) unfortunately hasn't been pulled aside by anybody to have "plastics" whispered in his ear -- but he is still interested in comic-book hero Plastic Man.

But now the scene is January 1999, and this time it's your life (played by you), and it's time to start thinking about what to do with that sheepskin, and the job marketplace is shouting one word at you. Plastics? Nope. We're now a postindustrial, information-based economy.

Try computers.
Yeah, it's a PC world, and the comic-book hero for the new millennium should be Computer Man ... or Woman.

The Job Outlook
Computers make the world go round (or make it stop spinning -- think Y2K). So, information-technology expertise can put you on the fast track to job success.

"Seventy percent of the companies (recruiting) on campus were looking for graduates in information technology and information management," says Susan Felps, assistant dean of engineering career services at Washington University.

"We're seeing a continued shift to the service industry from manufacturing," says Deborah Kettler, director of career services at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Kettler referred us to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

According to Job Outlook '99, an annual NACE publication, the four types of bachelor's-degree candidates with the biggest percentage increases from last year in projected starting-salary offers are all in information technologies.

Information-science-grad salaries are up 5.9 percent, computer-science salaries 5.5 percent, computer-engineering salaries 5.4 and management information systems (MIS) salaries 5.2.

The next hottest area is engineering, which maintains a slim lead for highest starting salaries (see chart). In engineering, projected starting-salary offers for computer engineers (a sort of dual-field category), as mentioned, are up 5.4 percent, electrical-engineering salaries are up 5.0 percent, mechanical-engineering salaries 4.5 and chemical-engineering salaries 4.3.

"Graduates with technical skills rule," writes Camille Luckenbaugh, NACE's employment-information manager.

But you can still find a good-paying job coming out of undergraduate school with a nontechnical degree, according to Luckenbaugh, who cites sales and accounting as good bets. In fact, business school in general offers promise. Projected starting-salary offers for bachelor's-degree candidates in business administration are up 4.4 percent and up 4.3 in accounting.

"We get a lot of requests for accounting graduates," says Joan Lasinski, associate director of career management at Maryville University, which has a highly reputed accounting program. "That may just be partly attributed to our program."

Accounting, though, is also mentioned as a hot field by Leslie Lantow, director of career services at Harris-Stowe State College, which has a long tradition of producing teachers. "The business people are taking over," Lantow says, half-joking. "Six years ago we started our business program, and now we have several options within our business-administration program."

But even at schools such as Maryville, which has traditions in health science and liberal arts, or Harris-Stowe, which for years was a teachers' college, their career-services professionals say the hottest area for their graduates is information technology.

When employers come calling, what specifically are they looking for?
"In computers, just about everything," says Lasinski. "They're looking for programmers, for analysts, a lot of things with Web design."

"The computer-science folks learn how to program in different (computer) languages," says Lantow, "and the MIS people focus on hardware and networking of software."

"Computer science, MIS, everybody needs them," says Ann Bullock, assistant director of the career-development center at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. "Part of this is the 'year 2000' problem, but it's also because everybody's on the Internet -- everything is on the Internet. We're not atypical."

Even if employers aren't looking for someone to fill a highly technical position, count on being expected to get training in computer use. That might explain why, although information technology is so hot, enrollment is flat in that area at Wash. U.

"I think because people in all our programs tend to be fairly knowledgeable, it's to the point where they can move into some of those areas with minimal training," says Wash. U.'s Felps.

Or it could be that because information-technology graduates are in such demand, it is not as crucial to come out of a prestigious -- and more expensive -- school such as Wash. U. to get a job.

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