By Ray Downs
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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.
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.
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.
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.