Recruiters Say They’re Hiring, But UCSD Engineering Students See It Differently

California’s jobless data for January is set for release Friday, but there’s little reason to expect much improvement since December, when the statewide unemployment rate hit 9.3 percent, with more than 1.73 million California residents out of work. In San Diego County, overall unemployment was at 7.4 percent in December, with 117,000 people jobless.

For the tech sector job market specifically, Xconomy’s layoff trackers offer another barometer of a generally grim situation (You can find our San Diego layoff tracker here). Greg and Wade provided another perspective last month by talking to some of the MBA students at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, MA, during their annual “tech trek” to meet with companies in Silicon Valley, as well as Seattle and Boston.

But I sensed more anxiety—or maybe it was less confidence—when I dropped in at UC San Diego Friday for an annual job fair organized by students at the Jacobs School of Engineering.

“Everyone’s worried about the economy,” says Dat Kieu, a third-year undergraduate studying mechanical engineering. He was looking for an internship or part-time job.

UCSD says its Disciplines of Engineering Career Fair (DECaF) is the only annual, student-managed, multidisciplinary career fair on campus. and this year 71 companies participated. A public relations coordinator, eager to convey the idea that companies are hiring, even provided a survey (with 30 of the 71 companies responding) that shows 40 percent of the companies attending the fair say they plan to hire the same number of full-time positions in 2009 as they hired in 2008—although 33 percent say they plan to hire fewer entry-level engineers. The same survey shows 53 percent expect to place the same number of engineering interns this year, with 23 percent planning to recruit fewer interns in 2009.

“It’s an interesting hiring climate,” says Qualcomm recruiter Vince Walker. “We’re not going full throttle, but we’re still bringing people on board.” Yet Walker and other recruiters told me the tough job market enables them to be far more selective.

Bob Balderas, a recruiter for New Jersey-based BD Biosciences, which employs about 400 in San Diego, says the company plans to start an internship program for UCSD students in the fall. When asked about hiring for full-time positions, Balderas says BD is looking for PhD students in engineering, bioengineering, and life sciences for its corporate technology leadership and development program. When I asked about students graduating with masters’ degrees, he replied, “We’re just looking for PhDs at this time.”

One recruiter told me she thought some of the other companies have no intention of hiring—they’re just attending UCSD’s career fair to market their brand “and because they figure it’s already a sunk cost.”

Several recruiters actually refused to talk to me. In one bizarre incident, the recruiter in charge of the booth for San Diego-based ViaSat told me I couldn’t report anything another ViaSat representative had just told me unless I first cleared it through ViaSat’s corporate communications. What I was told was that ViaSat’s management is committed to hiring young engineering grads—despite the downturn in the economy. (I didn’t seek authorization to report this; I had introduced myself as a journalist at the outset).

About 500 undergraduate and graduate engineering students attended the job fair, and the handful I talked to say they are apprehensive about their job prospects. Some talked about extending their studies, which may help explain why applications for UCSD’s graduate engineering programs for the fall have increased 10 percent.

“My plan was to go out in the job market, try to get a few years experience, and then go back for a business degree, an MBA,” says Steve Sepanloo of Palo Alto, CA, a fourth-year undergraduate studying computer science. But now Sepanloo says he may go for the MBA first. “For whatever reason, the hiring has gotten more intense,” Sepanloo told me. “I don’t know if they’re hiring any less people for internships, but instead of one or two meetings, now you’re looking at six, seven, eight meetings. They want to be sure they’re getting the best.”

And then there is Sangeetha Gopalakrishnan, who is nearing the end of her master’s program in electrical engineering. If anyone, I thought a female engineer would stand a better chance of getting hired, but she shook her head. “It’s quite bad,” she says. “My field is circuit design, chip design, so my interests are very specific.” She adds, “Last year I got three or four calls for interviews, but this year, I can really see that the market is—well, there is no market.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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