Today's hot job recruits: dropouts

With high-tech labor shortage, a college degree is no longer a job requirement.

Jason Legate may seem like your average techie.

He's riding the pre-IPO wave, managing Web sites for a start-up in Silicon Valley. Annual salary: $60,000, plus stock options and full benefits. There's one catch: He's only 19 years old.

And he's not alone.

A growing number of students are opting to put college on hold or to drop out to join the world of Internet start-ups. The draw: hard-core experience and money.

While the issue is creating a debate over the value of a four-year degree (not to mention testing parents' patience), it points to a downside of the red-hot economy: the conflict between developing well-rounded employees and boosting the bottom line.

"This economy has created such an enormous opportunity for people to get amazing experience and create wealth," says Peter Hilliard, vice president of human resources for Santa Clara, Calif.-based SiteSmith, where Mr. Legate works. "By default, I see people opting to drop out of college and start their careers."

The high-tech worker shortage is hardly new.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 108 percent increase in the need for systems analysts, engineers, and computer scientists from now until 2006. Currently there are an estimated 933,000 jobs in these fields; by 2006 the bureau estimates that number will rise to 1.9 million. Yet the nation's computer-science programs graduate only 25,000 students each year with bachelor's degrees.

At the same time, demand is off the charts. Consider SiteSmith: The start-up, which manages Web sites, opened its doors in October with 11 people. Today, it employs 240 workers and expects to have more than 400 on its payroll by year-end.

Enter today's college students.

Gobbling up young workers

Never before has there been a generation without a degree as attractive to employers. Many of today's teens and young 20-somethings have been booting up computers and logging on before they turned on "Sesame Street." Legate says he got his first computer when he was 3. And many already have a rsum full of parttime experience. In fact, many dotcoms will fill temporary slots with high-schoolers off for the summer.

With all of that young, raw talent, many Internet start-ups are saying, "Why wait for students to get a diploma?"

"I work with people straight out of high school, people who didn't finish high school, and people who have had only a semester or two of college," says Joshua Kessler of SiteSmith. The former computer-science major at the University of Texas, Austin, dropped out two years ago to work in Silicon Valley.

He landed his first job with another start-up through a headhunter. "[The headhunter] just worried about the technical skills I had ... and what my experience was in the workforce," says Mr. Kessler, who worked part time at several high-tech companies during college. "I don't know how many companies didn't look at me because I didn't have a degree, but I didn't have a problem finding a job."

"If you have [the skills], they want you - there is no hesitation," says Kathryn Van Ness, director of the career center at the University of California, Irvine. "They are not waiting for college graduates because they can't produce what they need without the talent. And because the talent is short, if you have it, do school on the side, as far as they are concerned."

Because UC Irvine is surrounded by start-ups, she says most students work parttime (which can mean anywhere from 10 to 40 or more hours a week) rather than give up on a degree.

Much of the evidence of students dropping out to go to work for dotcoms is anecdotal. And the recent volatility in the industry may make students think a little harder about the risks of leaving school. Yet it's a trend universities and colleges (not to mention parents) are watching - although rather covertly.

No one discounts the value of a four-year degree, and educators and others agree education is a key to one's life potential. Yet some argue that this is a continuation of the lifelong learning trend - where people toggle back and forth between work and school.

"Knowledge and skill are becoming much more obsolete much more quickly, which calls into question the value of old-fashioned credentials," says Bruce Tulgan, head of RainmakerThinking, a consulting firm in New Haven, Conn. "I'm not willing to say that a degree doesn't matter anymore," he adds, "but I think its relative weight in its current form is on the decline."

At SiteSmith, Legate started out managing customer Web sites from conception through launch. He has since moved into a role overseeing projects and doing "firefighting" for customers.

For Legate, it was a chance to pursue his interest in computers without having to earn a degree. The former music major says he has no intention of getting a degree in computer science or staying in the field, because of the "burnout" factor.

"My career is going to have nothing to do with computers," Legate says. "This is an interest in my life and something I enjoy doing, and I might as well enjoy doing it while I can before my skills go out of date."

Many students argue that they learn more on the job than in the classroom. "For those of us who grew up with computers, we don't want to sit through 16 weeks of something that can be condensed down into one or two weeks," says Kessler, who someday would like to get a degree - in English literature. "Once you get onto a technical staff, you can ask questions and learn hands-on, which for me is a better way of learning."

Legate says he values most working side by side with people who are older and have all that "life experience." "Working here I learn how to deal with a whole multitude of situations, and all of it comes from my co-workers," he says. "There is no class that could teach you that."

Some students, like Jeff Du, do opt to go back to dorm life after a short stint with dotcoms.

Back to school

Last summer, at the end of his sophomore year at the University of California, Berkeley, he interned as a program developer with a start-up here in southern California. Mr. Du liked the work so much that he decided to stay on (much to his parents' chagrin).

After six months on the job, however, the electrical-engineering and computer-science major decided to head back to Berkeley to finish his degree.

The decision wasn't easy. Being inside a start-up was invaluable, he says. In the end, Du says a degree will not only make him more marketable but will make his experience in the start-up world even more valuable. "I think I will learn more from my experience if I have the tools, which is my education," Du says. "[But] I miss it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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