Microsoft, SIM, Monster -- big geeks on campus

Microsoft and the Society for Information Management (SIM) are teaming up to sell IT as a career route on college campuses -- where technology majors are scarce.

Microsoft and the Society for Information Management (SIM), a membership organization for IT professionals, were on Northeastern University's campus last week to tout the benefits of choosing IT as a career. Not exactly an appearance by Weezer, but the IT execs drew a crowd, cramming the aisles and sitting on windowsills, said Patricia Randall, the chapter president of Boston SIM.

True, there was pizza and some Microsoft freebies. Plus, a cool lineup of speakers that included the Paul Neilson, the CIO at online job search company Monster.com, and 20-something Adam Walder, a Northeastern grad who started online music purveyor undergroundhiphop.com in his dorm room.

What was impressive, said the organizers, is that the turnout not only represented a broad mix of students -- from the expected computer geeks to marketing and philosophy majors -- but exceeded the number of IT majors at Northeastern, who numbered 300 three years ago, but then dropped as low as 120 and are now slowly rising again.

The half-day event was the second of 15 seminars Microsoft and SIM plan to host across the nation in the coming year. Organizers are targeting universities, like Northeastern, that have experienced a significant decline in enrollment in IT programs, said Betsy Steele, senior marketing manager, relationship marketing, for Microsoft. The first seminar was at Pace University in New York.

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The effort differs from Microsoft's typical recruiting on college campuses, where high-level executives, including Bill Gates, visit powerhouses like Harvard, MIT and Stanford University to pitch computer science majors. "We are casting our net broader," Steele said. "Based on the job skills CIOs are asking for, we are looking to help train people not only in basic information management but in business operations and business solutions. We're talking about how technology enables business strategy innovation, or the marriage of business with the technology."

Rohit Ohri, a senior at Northeastern and president of the university's MIS Club, who helped organize the event, said he is not personally concerned about jobs being outsourced or automated. "Coders, tier-1 support, basic Web developers are the jobs that are leaving the quickest, because they can be mimicked without necessarily understanding business," he said. The most useful part of the event for Ohri was the message that technical skills are not necessarily what matter most in getting a job in IT -- a lesson he's learned from his own college experience.

As a freshman, Ohri enrolled in the university's College of Computer Science, but found he was not gifted at programming and switched to the business school, majoring in MIS. "I realized I was better off on the business and troubleshooting end of computing rather than the programming or back end," he said. He parlayed an internship at Harvard Law School into a part-time job, providing help desk support for law students for the past year. The experience has reinforced his belief that the ability to communicate is perhaps the most important skill for someone going into IT now. "Most of the time, your job is to translate the tech jargon into English. Without communication skills, nobody will understand you," he said.

The decline in computer science majors following the tech bust has been well documented, with a recent study from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles showing that the percentage of incoming students interested in majoring in computer science slid by 60% between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2004. The dwindling talent pool -- coupled with impending baby-boomer retirement -- has prompted many companies, such as IBM, to step up support to college computing program.

The Microsoft/SIM program targets freshmen and sophomores who have not declared majors, or upperclassmen who may be looking to add to their skills before hitting the job market, said Microsoft's Steele. It also is designed to dispel the strong perception that IT is a dead-end field because the jobs are being sent offshore or automated. While low-skill technical jobs will move to cheaper markets, people who can apply technology to solve business problems are in high demand, she said.

At the Northeastern event, for example, Monster's Neilson pulled data from the company's records showing that the number of IT jobs available today does match the strong demand the industry enjoyed at the height of the tech bubble. Also, salaries for entry-level jobs, such as junior project managers or information specialists, are rising because the supply of skilled applicants has dwindled. Indeed, Monster's November employment index reported that online job demand for computer and mathematical occupations showed "a significant spike in growth, indicating higher demand for IT professionals and providing a more encouraging outlook of the nation's technology sector."

But the "myth," of no IT jobs, Steele said, will become self-fulfilling prophecy, even for the higher level positions, unless more students go into IT. As dwindling supply pushes up salaries, companies will balk at paying for the rare U.S. talent and push more work abroad, allowing other countries to fill the talent gap.

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