Opinion: Magna Cum unemployed

When I changed my college major from mechanical engineering to computer science in 1998, I had few reservations about making the switch. After all, the salaries of the two professions were comparable, and IT seemed to be thriving.

Unfortunately, my graduation in December 2000 roughly coincided with the crash of the dot-coms and a dip in the economy, which made job searching much more difficult.

No fear, I thought, I have an academic record that will impress employers and help me stand out among job candidates. I had graduated magna cum laude, made the dean's list multiple times, won awards for academic excellence -- and no one seemed to care. The liability of my inexperience seemed to outweigh any advantage that a solid academic background provided.

The slowing of the economy has left many experienced IT professionals looking for jobs, and companies have their choice of workers with proven track records. This means decreased opportunities for entry-level programmers with résumés heavy on skills and education and light on job history.

Illustrating this fact are the employers and headhunters who call to express interest in the skills I have listed on my résumé online. One of their first questions is, "How much experience do you have?" Answering this potentially damning question with honesty usually ensures no future correspondence.

The lack of opportunities made me increasingly worried, and in September 2001, I committed an act of desperation. I had been job searching by myself and through employment agencies for almost eight months when I accepted a knowledge management position at a government agency in Washington, where living expenses are high and the pay is low. The job was part intern/part employee and kept me on the periphery of working with IT (checking e-mail was my sole interaction with computers). After six months in the program, I decided to return home and earnestly look for opportunities in software development, the area of most interest to me.

Searching online job sites yielded few possibilities for someone with my level of experience; I fared better by contacting hiring managers directly. After three months of research and many phone calls to managers, I landed a job as a Web developer at a struggling e-learning company. But after being told almost every week for six months that the office might not be open the following week, I was searching for another job by December 2002.

During this time, I had also enrolled in a graduate program, thinking that another degree might help me find a job. However, since starting the program, I have considered the possibility that even this move may not help, because there are factors affecting the job market that are beyond my control.

For instance, the controversial H-1B and L-1 visa programs exacerbate the situation by importing foreign IT workers, placing them in direct competition with American workers for jobs. This, by far, is the most disturbing discovery to me. Abuse of these programs is obvious, and their necessity escapes me.

My heart sinks when I read stories about IT workers such as those at Siemens AG in Lake Mary, Fla., who were replaced by L-1 visa workers and made to train their replacements. The matter is compounded by the trend of sending IT jobs offshore, as summed up in the ominous proclamation of Ann Livermore, HP's services chief, when she stated, "We're trying to move everything we can offshore," in an interview in a December 2002 Forbes article. Taking these things into account, I am convinced that the IT industry is being undermined.

This point was driven home as I sat with the head of the computer science department at my university and we spoke about the scarcity of IT jobs. "I shouldn't be saying this, because I am from India," he said, "but India has really prospered through this." I told him that I was aware of all the outsourcing, but he explained that companies such as Microsoft were going a step further and setting up shop in India. Then he reassured me that creative IT jobs such as research would be safe in the U.S., but he corrected himself midstream by saying that GE was in the process of constructing a research center in India.

Finally, he punctuated his remarks by saying, "It's been a tough three years," an understatement with which I emphatically agree.

- Donald Finley is a computer science graduate student and a graduate assistant in Tennessee. Contact him at dcf1922@yahoo.com.

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