EE grads face worst job market in 20 years

By Margaret Quan

EE Times
January 31, 2003 (12:04 p.m. EST)

This year's crop of EE graduates will be scrambling for slim pickings as they confront the worst engineering job market in perhaps two decades, according to career services directors at universities and engineering schools contacted by EE Times.

Graduates must compete not only with their peers but also with the thousands of experienced engineers set adrift by the telecom, computer and chip industries over the past two years. The unemployment rate for the overall U.S. work force spiraled to 6 percent in December; for EEs, the fourth-quarter jobless rate was 3.9 percent, according to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It's the "worst job market in 20 years" for EEs, said Richard Coddington, the assistant dean and director of engineering career services at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Coddington ought to know: He has booked only half as many corporate recruiter visits to the campus this spring as in spring 2002. That dismal statistic looks even dimmer when you consider that last year's recruiting activity at the university paled in comparison with 2001.

The story's the same at colleges and universities nationwide, even at the top engineering schools: In the interest of cost-cutting, employers are visiting fewer campuses and sending few recruiters to the schools they still visit. Some have canceled previously booked visits. Some are putting off campus recruiting junkets until later in the year, hoping that economic conditions will improve and they'll need the new grads' services.

North Carolina State University's Raleigh campus expects 55 employers to visit this spring, said Carol Schroeder, interim director of the career center. In fatter years, two or three times that number would show up. NCSU's engineering career fair, scheduled for this month, has attracted 65 employers, down from 75 in 2002 and 120 the year before.

But Schroeder remained hopeful. "Many employers may wait [until] closer to the end of the semester" to hire, she said, adding that small, local employers that experience sudden hiring needs may arrange campus visits as those needs arise.

California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo) has similarly observed that "employers seem to be waiting for the last possible minute to set interview schedules," said Richard M. Equinoa, director of the university's career services.

Equinoa's outside sources nonetheless indicate that employers will see a turnaround in the next couple of quarters, he said. "We're pulling for that."

To encourage employer interest in their grads, top-rated schools are doing more marketing of their students and are aggressively reaching out to employers. "That's something we've never had to do before," said Coddington of Illinois.

Seasoned competition

But schools know it may be tough to market new grads when thousands of experienced EEs are available for hiring.

Schroeder of NCSU noted that telecom-related layoffs at Nortel, Cisco Systems, Fujitsu, Ericsson and MCI-Worldcom in the state's Raleigh-Durham, Chapel Hill and Research Triangle Park areas will compound its graduates' job-hunting challenges.

"Local numbers estimate that there are 30,000 telecom professionals out there looking for jobs," Schroeder said.

The poor job market outlook for 2003 has Coddington wondering whether the high-tech hiring explosion of 1999-2000 was a one-shot phenomenon. "It may be that the levels we saw three to four years ago will not return," he surmised.

However modest or expansive the turnaround proves to be, today's college seniors and master's candidates can't count on its arrival in time for their graduation. So career center directors are telling engineering students to be more proactive in the job search than ever before and not to rely on campus recruiting visits. "Leave no stone unturned," advised Equinoa; network aggressively.

The strategy paid off for 2002 Penn State grad Steve Moses, who has been working since June as an associate engineer at Potomac Electric Power (Washington, D.C.). Moses said he landed the job by networking with Penn State alumni, not through on-campus recruiting.

Indeed, Moses said, he had gotten three offers from which to choose not a bad showing given the bleak job market.

Moses called himself a "go-getter" with a good GPA but plenty of grads can claim those attributes.

What may have set Moses apart, he speculated, was his experience as a student leader in IEEE. He told potential employers that he had been an IEEE student branch chairman for two years and a coordinator of two student conferences for the organization, and he says potential employers seemed to "eat up" the information.

Moses also worked for Penn State's campus newspaper and served internships at Hershey Foods Corp. (Hershey, Pa.) and consulting firm Parsons Energy and Chemical (Pasadena, Calif.).

He noted that friends who are still unemployed tell him this year's job market is "worse than 2002." That means students must be even more proactive about the job search, Moses said.

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