Job-fair culture gets hip to lure the tech set

Remember the old campus "job fair " - where guys in suits from big companies sat smugly at tiny tables? If your handshake was impressive, they might invite you to mail a rsum.

What a difference a decade and an Internet economy make. Those little tables have turned. With record-low unemployment, corporate America now comes to campus on at least slightly bended knee.

Of course, students with technology backgrounds are most keenly aware they are in the driver's seat. And businesses know that they know. So all that knowledge is driving a not-so-subtle shift in the balance of power in college career-fair culture, observers say.

"The recruiting market is totally geared now to the student," says Nathaniel Birdsall, associate marketing director for Catalyst Recruiting, an online recruiting company in New Haven, Conn.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on a recent Friday afternoon inside a Massachusetts Institute of Technology gymnasium in Cambridge, where 120 companies are prospecting for new hires and student-rsum gold.

First impressions are important, says Amy Lee, president of Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society putting on this career fair. No, not the company's impression of a student, she explains, but vice versa. Company hipness is key to catching student interest. Ponytails on male corporate staffers are not uncommon. Logo-emblazoned T-shirts are omnipresent - suits and ties conspicuously absent. The operative message: that a company is laid back, "fun to work for."

"All these kids with technical backgrounds are so confident," says Mr. Birdsall, whose company has a booth here. "Companies here are desperate for students rather than the other way around." He gestures across the aisle to the sign in a start-up's booth: "Party every Saturday."

"This is how they have to appeal to people," he says. And it does appeal to MIT senior Grant Emory, whose long hair cascades onto a backpack stuffed with rsums in two flavors: electrical engineering and computer science. He's not a party hound, but "just less interested in working for a company that's formal," he says. "Who wants to be locked into a 9-to-5 workweek? What I want is a less rigid environment, sort of a meritocracy."

There are other issues, too. Many students have dollar signs as well as work environment on their minds. Especially with the explosion of dotcom companies on the stock exchange, students here are acutely aware of start-ups' penchant to dump stock options on new employees - and then go public, turning everyone on staff into a millionaire.

Philippe Cheng and Ed Huang, MIT sophomores, are both "EECS" (electrical engineering-computer science) double majors. The two words embedded in their minds are "Internet" and "start-up."

Together they wander among the rows of tables piled high with company brochures, yo-yos, and squishy foam balls decorated with corporate logos. This is nice stuff for a dorm room. But it's mostly from established companies. Not what they're looking for. "We're just looking around for a start-up," says Mr. Cheng.

"I'm keeping all my options open," adds Mr. Huang. He has his eye on Internet companies because they involve "less politics ... maybe more money, too."

They cruise through start-up territory chatting and handing out rsums at booths for Beansprout Networks, Flyswat, Event Zero, Spotfire, Reality Wave, Prizma. Finally, they stop at the booth of @Stake, a one-month-old Internet-security start-up. Five young men staff the booth, wearing hip black T-shirts with the word "hacker" emblazoned on the back.

Steve Roge, a recruiter, practically leaps over his little table to meet the two as they pause to casually survey company literature. "Hi, my name's Steve, what're you looking to do?" asks Mr. Roge. Unfortunately, this company is so new it can't help Cheng and Huang - both of whom are looking for summer internships and a foot in the door, not full-time jobs just yet. The students fork over their rsums anyway and stroll on.

Not all of the 1,200 to 1,500 students that attend this fair are from MIT. Shan Jiang, for instance, has a master's degree in computer science from Dartmouth. "Some MIT friends of mine told me I should come down for this," he says. "I hope this pays off."

It may, but some companies screen out potential new hires who seem mainly interested in the potential for big bucks.

"We do get some people asking about it [going public]," says Matt Esch, an MIT alumnus and an engineer with Flyswat, a computer-software developer in San Francisco. "It's a little bit of a turnoff, though, if they're only interested in money."

But Tom Pinkney, president of Exotec, a five-month-old company based in Sudbury, Mass., is less demure on this point.

"It's not that we'll hire anyone who comes along," he says. "What students have to ask themselves is: Is this going to challenge me - am I going to learn great stuff?... And there's another reason to work for us - the opportunity to make a heck of a lot of money."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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