Here is good news for college seniors with technology skills: The entry-level job market for IT workers looks solid in 2012.
"If you're in IT, you couldn't be coming out of college at a better time," says Matt McGee, vice president of technical staffing services for Cincinnati-based Pomeroy, who points out that the unemployment rate for the U.S. IT industry was 2.7% in November. "You can get a job somewhere, but you need to choose wisely. ... You need to get someplace where you can see a growth path and where you're going to learn a lot over the next year or two."
Dice.com reports a shortage of IT workers in 18 states and Washington, D.C., with the biggest gap between job postings and recent grads in California, New Jersey, Texas and New York.
This shortage is likely to drive entry-level IT salaries up in 2012, experts say.
"We've seen falling entry-level salaries for the last few years, but that's boding for a turnaround," says Alice Hill, managing director of Dice.com. "It was $47,000 in 2010. ... My advice to new college grads is to negotiate hard. Don't just take a job. Really try to get a good salary as you start your career in tech."
Traditionally, entry-level IT positions have involved customer service, such as help desk or desktop support. Job openings in these areas appear to be holding steady.
"Most of the entry-level work is going to be some form of interacting with other people, such as a desktop support technician," McGee says. "If you have some good interpersonal skills and the ability to learn from a technical standpoint, you're desired in a service desk. ... With a college education, you can be a team leader or a process analyst."
"Entry-level workers don't need previous experience because they'll be trained on-the-job in the first few weeks," says Elizabeth Sias, recruiting manager for Randstad Technologies, a Boston IT staffing company. "Some companies will pay for employees to get the CompTIA certifications before they start working. Those certifications are very thorough and very well rounded and not too expensive compared to some of the other certifications in the IT industry."
But tech support roles aren't the only option for college seniors to pursue. There is also strong demand for application developers in such emerging areas as smartphones and social media. Because these technologies are new, employers are willing to consider recent college grads who are hobbyists.
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"You don't have to have years and years of experience developing apps for smartphones or social media, because they've only been out and really popular for a few years," Sias says. "I use Facebook as an example. It's developed with a language called PHP. If you can get the basics of that language down, there are entry-level positions for companies like Facebook to develop Web pages."
Sias says she would hire a recent graduate with a computer science degree who has developed an application for a smartphone that is available at an app store. "That's definitely something of interest whether the person is just getting into IT or has a lifetime of programming experience," she says.
"The purely technical roles will not necessarily be in IT but more in technology providers and vendors, including traditional outsourcing or cloud companies," says Lily Mok, vice president at Gartner for CIO Research.
CIOs will be looking for entry-level workers with communications and business skills who can manage IT service providers and who can bridge the gap between the IT department and lines of business.
"We're also seeing different kinds of jobs that are not pure IT," Mok says. "We see organizations not just hiring computer science majors, but hiring people who have a business or even arts background who can work in these roles and can be trained in the tech aspects of the jobs."
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These hybrid jobs bringing together technical and business skills will be available in many industries, including healthcare, financial and retail.
"People who are looking to get into a particular industry will see a lot of IT-related opportunities," Sias says. "We see a lot of IT related to healthcare such as electronic medical records analysts. In retail, we see entry-level positions for installing point-of-sale systems and troubleshooting those systems. There are IT opportunities in marketing around search engine optimization."
Another area that's ripe for newly minted college grads is business analytics, which is being taught in more colleges such as Northwestern University, which recently inked a partnership with IBM.
"No longer are analytics skills limited to those studying computer science. Regardless of their area of study, students need a solid understanding of how analytics technology can transform their industry by unlocking critical insights hidden in data," says IBM's Deepak Advani, vice president of predictive analytics. "Students with a combination of industry/topic expertise and an understanding of analytics will be well positioned for jobs of the future."
Sias recommends that CIOs look to recent college grads to find IT workers who might replace baby boomers retiring in the next few years. They also may be more loyal and less likely to leave in one or two years compared to those in their late 20s and early 30s.
"If you start bringing on college grads now and start developing them by putting them in programs to educate them, you can let the baby boomer generation do the handholding for them," Sias recommends.
Some companies are turning to internships to find college grads for their IT departments. Louis Trebino, CIO and senior vice president at the Harry Fox Agency in New York City, has developed an internship program to attract at least one entry-level person to his 37-person IT shop each year.
"Last year, we had an intern who was stellar. We hired her after graduation," Trebino says. "We have another intern who is working part time while he is still in college, and we hope to bring him on in May. I've very eager to get them fresh out of school. That may help with IT staff turnover. It's a win-win for both of us."