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Workplace Trends: the Future is Now

Employers are adopting innovative ways to attract and retain engineering and computer science graduates

By Jean Ann Cantore

Here's the scene: You get up five days a week, go to work at company headquarters at 8 a.m., take lunch at the burger joint down the street from noon to one and go home at five. Most of your work is done in your office. Once a month, you get a paycheck. You have major medical benefits and a nice retirement plan.

An on-site cafe, complete with 

skylights, hanging sculptures and a piano player, serves 

restaurant-quality meals to SAS Institute employees each 

day.

An on-site cafe, complete with skylights, hanging sculptures and a piano player, serves restaurant-quality meals to SAS Institute employees each day.

Now here's the reality: Today's technical workplace is not the structured 40-hours-a-week environment it once was. Flexible working hours and added incentives make jobs more enjoyable and practical for today's employees. People may spend two or three days a week working from home as telecommuters. They know it's easier to work out at the company gym during lunch than to drive across town to lift weights after hours. And, of course, they still get a nice paycheck and other benefits.

Graduating engineers and computer scientists are finding that their workdays are nothing like the routines depicted in television shows such as "Leave It to Beaver" or "The Wonder Years." Here are some of the employment trends in today's technical industries.

Come On In!

"The number of degrees conferred in the engineering and computer science fields has declined, which means there is more competition for graduates in those fields," says Camille Luckenbaugh, employment information manager for the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pa. "Unemployment is low, and people are looking for employees with experience but have difficulty finding them. However, having a good degree still doesn't guarantee you a job—you have to have the right set of technical skills. Your GPA also counts."

The Occupational Outlook Handbook put out by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that technical jobs will be in high demand for the next seven years. In the job forecast for 1996-2006, computer scientists and computer engineers rank first and second, respectively, for the numbers of jobs that will be available.

In this tight labor market, many companies are using their college internship or co-op programs as a means of finding good employees. Students who participate in these programs may have an advantage getting on board with a company after graduation because the students are already familiar with the company and are, themselves, known quantities.

Employees at PMC-Sierra Inc. 

are encouraged to pursue continuing education with 

incentives like tuition reimbursement and access to 

computer-based education.

Employees at PMC-Sierra Inc. are encouraged to pursue continuing education with incentives like tuition reimbursement and access to computer-based education.

While internships have been a popular recruitment tool for years, a hot trend in recruiting is online job applications. Instead of sending an application via snail mail, candidates can apply with the click of a button. PMC-Sierra Inc., a semiconductor design company based in Burnaby, British Columbia, offers applicants the chance to view job openings in both Canada and the U.S. on its Web site and then apply for the positions online.

"We have a link to our careers page off our company Web site," notes Felicia Wong, human resources consultant with PMC-Sierra. "Students especially like using the online application because they're always on the Internet. It's also convenient for us because we can track applications online easier." But traditional hiring methods still abound.

"We do a lot of recruiting on college campuses," notes John Dornan of public affairs and corporate communications with SAS Institute, a decision support software company based in Cary, N.C. "While we focus on the wealth of college talent here in our backyard, we also recruit from schools across the country and look for opportunities to direct graduating students to our employment Web site. Because we have regional offices across the country, much of the interviewing and even placement can be done through those offices."

Beyond the Salary

Of course, one of the most effective carrots to dangle in front of college graduates has, for many years, been money. Salaries in technical fields are climbing upward because of the supply and demand factor, with a national average for computer science entry-level salaries of $45,562. Of course, Luckenbaugh notes, salaries vary from company to company and individual to individual. Factors such as location and how well graduates market themselves enter into the salary game, too.

As engineering and computer science employees find their stock rising, however, they've realized that they can leverage their value to demand more from their jobs than a good base salary. "We survey students and find that in their jobs, they want basic benefits such as medical insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan, dental insurance and annual salary increases," adds Mimi Collins, NACE communications director. "Some employers are offering sign-on bonuses to certain types of employees as an incentive, too."

In addition, a big trend in high-tech industries in particular is employee stock option programs. With these programs, employees are given a certain number of options to purchase company stock at a later date at a preferred price. If the company is publicly-held, or when it becomes publicly-held, employees can purchase it and make nice dividends.

Employees are also interested in self-improvement, and employers are responding. Today's workers are encouraged to get additional training, not just for themselves, but for the company. Whether it's another college degree or a week-long seminar, most companies that hire technical people pay for their continuing education. At PMC-Sierra, employees are encouraged to get as much education as possible. The tuition reimbursement program has prompted a number of employees to pursue master's degrees in electrical engineering and business.

"We're also part of the National Technical University, which is an accredited university out of Colorado," Wong comments. "We have a satellite dish here, and we can down-link courses and make videotapes for employees who want to take classes through NTU. In addition, we offer access to computer-based education to employees."

For people who want to move up the ladder at PMC-Sierra, there is a career-planning division and relocation package to help employees move to other company locations. The company also offers career paths for technical people and those interested in moving into management.

Creature Comforts

SAS Institute has discovered the secret to helping keep employees happy: Help them balance work and personal time. The software company, established in 1976, has always been an "employee-friendly" place to work. The company has a standard 35-hour work week and flexible work schedules. SAS also provides an on-site child care center and a health care center for employees. One of the most popular benefits, though, is the on-site recreation and fitness center.

"Our founder and CEO, Dr. John Goodnight, wanted to create a place where it would be enjoyable to work," Dornan says. "He still spends about half of his time writing computer code, so he really understands what his employees are doing. Dr. Goodnight also realizes that when you work 12- to 14-hour days, which is common in this industry, your efficiency can drop off dramatically."

Employees get perks such as access to break rooms stocked with free goodies, and the campus includes a company-subsidized cafe that serves gourmet fare. Being family-oriented, the company has worked its schedule so that parents are able to meet their children at the bus after school. The family environment is further perpetuated with special recreational activities and company-wide parties throughout the year.

"We recruit new employees because there's always a demand for software people," Dornan says. "We also hire a lot of high-level statisticians. I think our incentives give us an edge in the hiring market; they especially make a difference when people have the opportunity to visit our campus. One payoff we see from our programs is that our turnover is very low—less than 4%."

Dornan sees making companies "employee-friendly" as a welcome trend in business. He adds that a number of businesses have approached SAS for advice on starting similar programs. However, just because a company builds a fitness center or nice snack bar doesn't mean morale will be boosted immediately, Dornan explains. He notes that these programs take time.

PMC-Sierra has recognized and established an environment that fosters friendships and comfort among employees. Every Wednesday, the company has "Connect Break," when employees get free snacks and are encouraged to visit and get to know each other. Extracurricular activities help employees become team-oriented both at work and play. When employees form teams to play sports such as soccer, basketball and hockey, the company often provides uniforms and other support.

Individual incentive packages and other perks contribute to employee contentment at PMC-Sierra, which employs more than 500 people. Wong notes that the company's worker retention rate is 97%.

Although people may work more hours than they did 40 years ago, the flexibility companies allow staffers makes work demands more bearable. In addition, more companies recognize that workers are looking to their workplaces for support in areas such as continuing education, child care and other personal benefits.

"People see us as a place where they can have a great career and a life," Dornan says, "particularly younger folks who have seen their parents burn out from work overload. They come into the workplace less willing to dedicate their entire lives to the company."

Jean Ann Cantore is editor of the Texas Techsan magazine and a free-lance writer based in Lubbock, Texas.

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