Teen Geeks Ride to Tech Rescue

They are the new recruits of the high-tech industry. Brainy. Confident. Brimming with energy. Some are pulling down enough money to buy a Porsche - but have yet to blow out enough candles to get a driver's license.

From Los Angeles's Tech Coast to the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, more and more companies are tapping teenagers to fill jobs.

They're testing software, designing Web sites, and writing computer programs. And they're not just working for software companies and chipmakers. Entertainment, manufacturing, and health-care firms are snatching up tech-savvy students, as well.

Most work after school, during the summer, or as interns. But the lure of big money is strong, and some are forgoing college to get a jump on a career.

One high-schooler reportedly earned (count it) $65,000 in one year working part time for a Silicon Valley firm.

"It's happening all over the place," says Rohit Shukla, president of the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance, referring to the teen-hiring trend. "If [companies] haven't started doing it, they're going to."

Indeed, the number of programmers and systems analysts ages 16 to 19 increased from 9,000 in 1996 to 15,000 in 1997, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To say high-tech firms need workers is an understatement.

The US Department of Labor projects that the number of computer-related jobs will more than double by 2006.

Meanwhile, many businesses are looking overseas to India and Russia to track down new talent. But that's an expensive alternative, especially for start-ups.

Enter teenagers. This is the first generation to grow up using computers. And for many, mainframes and motherboards are as much a part of their vocabulary as grunge and hip-hop.

"We have a new generation of kids who have been on computers since they were 5," says Jessie Woolley, president of Crimson & Brown Associates, a campus recruiting firm based in Boston. "For many, it's a game and a hobby."

Branching out

Take Jacob Herman, a senior at Hollywood High School. He spends an average of five hours a night on his computer. He even has his own Web page, complete with rsum, autobiography, and his own Stephen King fan-club site.

In fact, through a program at school, the Walt Disney Co. recently snapped him up for an internship in its online division. Generally, he works twice a week after school. But there's plenty of opportunity.

"They have been getting really busy and want me to come in as much as I can," Jacob says.

On the opposite coast, Mike Riehle, a high school senior in Raleigh, N.C., started working at nearby HAHT Software Inc. when he was 16. (His dad, who is chief financial officer, brought him on board.)

This summer, he landed a job (through his high school) at GTE Government Systems in Research Triangle Park doing computer programming and designing internal Web pages. The pay wasn't bad: $11 an hour. Multiply that times a 40-plus-hour work week and that's hardly spare change.

Even he couldn't believe it. "I gave the [recruiter] a stunned look of disbelief when she offered me [that much]," Riehle says. "She said, 'If that's not enough we could always go higher.' "

Starting pay above $10 an hour is not uncommon, according to industry sources.

Ken Patton, dean of career education at Glendale Community College in Glendale, Calif., estimates that a technical apprenticeship at one of the top entertainment studios in Los Angeles can pay $60,000 a year.

"These companies don't pay by age, they pay by talent," says Mr. Patton, who sees a constant flow of students into technical jobs before they graduate.

At the same time, more companies are zeroing in on community colleges for recruits. Motorola Inc. of Schaumburg, Ill., plans to start looking there this fall.

"We are hurting where every other company is hurting - in software engineering," says Christine Virgen, manager of strategic university relations at Motorola. This year it plans to hire 700 new software engineers, she says. But some of those positions may go unfilled.

Most high school career counselors say recruiters aren't exactly hanging out in the hallways. Many of the jobs students land come from their own contacts.

At the same time, with career opportunities increasing and the pipeline of people going into technical fields shrinking, more businesses are recruiting indirectly by providing mentoring programs and in-school training, and by sponsoring technical competitions.

Recruiters on the prowl

Motorola, for example, sponsors an annual robotics competition called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).

"It's no secret that companies like Motorola are in hot competition for men and women in the fields of math and science," says company spokesman David Rudd. "So we're involved for a very practical reason - to prepare the future work force."

Still, the more companies see teens' work, the hungrier they get for their talent. And that worries educators and career counselors who foresee more students opting to skip college - or worse yet, dropping out of high school.

Recruiting teenagers "is a very short-term solution to a much wider, bigger problem," says Mr. Shukla of the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance.

"Teenagers have to understand that education and their competitive job skills are their own responsibility, and they have to make sure they are current," adds Patton at Glendale Community College.

The key is for companies to think longer term.

"As the job market intensifies, [companies] will go to any length to find people. [Teenagers] are a good source," says Megan Spence, a recruiting manager with Seattle-based AXC Interactive Solutions, which has not hired high-schoolers. "But I would hope it is done with ethics, morals, and a plan in place."

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