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

In fact, according to NACE's survey of employers, projected average starting-salary offers for associate's-degree candidates (two-year degrees) is $33,106, nearly $3,000 more than bachelor's-degree candidates (four-year degrees) in liberal arts.

That sort of high demand for information-technology graduates, at any level, is reflected in NACE's regional hiring forecast. The only job category noted as fueling job increases in each of the four regions (West, Midwest, Northeast and South) is computer software/data processing.

Salaries
Of course, the higher the degree you obtain, the more money you're likely to make, but here's where those four years working toward a bachelor's degree (or, in Mr. Mike's case, seven years) pay off.

Chemical-engineering bachelor's-degree candidates are projected to start, on average, at nearly $45,000, according to NACE's national survey. Other engineering grads are also looking to start in the low $40,000 range, as are computer-science grads, with MIS folks not far behind at nearly $40,000.

"Our salaries (for graduates) pretty much match those national numbers," says UM-St. Louis' Kettler.

In the area of information technology, the numbers might be even higher locally because demand is outpacing supply.

"I'd say it's closer to $50,000 than $40,000," says SIUE's Bullock of starting salaries for computer-science graduates.

Information-technology workers are in such demand that computer-programming students in the cooperative-education program at Monsanto (see sidebar) can earn from $2,300-$3,200 per month, which would translate to $27,600-$38,400 annually, although they generally work for about six months at a time, according to Larry O'Neill, Monsanto's director of public affairs.

Don't Forget Those "Soft Skills"
You've got the hot degree, and it might even be from a prestigious school, but you might also want to remove your fingers from the keyboard and get your face out of the computer screen long enough to brush up on your people skills.

"Survey after survey shows that employers want more than technical skills," says Harris-Stowe's Lantow, a certified career counselor who says she used to be a manager for an accounting department but decided she was needed in her new occupation because "I saw too many miserable people out there in the workplace."

Lantow acknowledges that technical skills, both academic and PC, are still paramount, but that those alone aren't enough.

"Employers are looking for communication skills," she says. "Those include social effectiveness -- team skills, coaching skills, leadership, sales, problem-solving, organization and crisis management -- and presentation skills."

Personal characteristics also make a difference (see chart).
Further, NACE's annual survey of skills and abilities that employers seek places interpersonal skills at the top of the list, followed by teamwork, verbal communication, analytical, computer, written communication and leadership skills.

Internal reports among industry leaders indicate the need for increased competency in these "soft skills" as well.

"Schools aren't addressing that need (for soft skills)," says UM-St. Louis' Kettler. "It's hard to change academic programs."

Will the schools make the change?
"It's starting to happen," Kettler says. "They're looking at curricula and what they're putting into curricula -- looking at what employers want: interpersonal, teamwork, verbal and analytical skills, that, really, we can't teach. I guess you can by having classes have projects where students work in teams and make presentations and reports. Some of that has to come from home and family."

Putting It All Together
So, if you're looking for job success after college, it may depend not only on how much you've learned academically and technically but also on how you've developed personally in your people skills.

Are you going to mold what you've learned to the environment -- the job and the people -- around you? Hey, maybe it is a little like plastic.

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