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California and the West

Irvine Graduates Finding a Strong Market for High-Tech Jobs

Education: Students in engineering and computer science at the UC campus discover companies eager to recruit them. Some are offered positions long before they get their diplomas.


IRVINE — Here in Southern California's technology hub, students with newly minted degrees in engineering or computer science are walking right out of class and into the lab.

What a change. Just five years ago, students who could write computer software and design electrical and mechanical wonders hunted for jobs in a forest of recession; the region's aerospace and other technology-oriented companies were laying off workers by the hundreds.

Now the jobs are hunting for them.

With the healthy Southern California economy, and surging interest in the Internet and information technology, just about everyone graduating now is finding a job--sometimes months ahead of commencement, campus and corporate officials say.

Jason Castillo, 24, a UC Irvine civil engineering graduate hired this year at Fluor-Daniel, chose the university for his graduate studies because of its proximity to an emerging job market in technology. The story isn't the same back at Cal State Fresno, where he earned his bachelor's degree.

"In the Central Valley, the economy is not nearly as strong for engineering as Southern California," said Castillo, who will work as a design engineer at the petrochemical engineering firm. In Fresno, "I have friends who graduated when I did and they are still looking for jobs."

The local job market for all graduates is the best in recent years, with the number of firms recruiting on campus 41% higher than it was five years ago, according to the UC Irvine job placement center. About half of those companies are technology- or science-related.

"It's probably the best year for tech students in the last five years," said Bruce Riesenberg, director of UC Irvine's job placement center. "The restructuring and downsizing that has taken place in both the aerospace and the computer industry has ended and they are now rebuilding."

Michael Heiberg, 22, a computer science graduate, turned a love of programming games into a job at Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine. Before landing the position, he fielded calls at least twice a week from job recruiters.

"I wasn't searching a whole lot because I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted," Heiberg said.

The paychecks are bigger too. Average starting salaries for engineers and computer scientists are about $42,000, up from around $30,000 five years ago--a sign of the high demand for such workers, Riesenberg said. At the information and computer science department, the largest in the UC system and among the largest in the country, every one of about 140 graduates has found work, with many of them landing jobs as early as last November, said department Chairman Michael J. Pazzani.

About 80% of those jobs were in Orange County, where a mini-Silicon Valley is taking root in the Irvine area.

"We are not at all meeting demand," said Pazzani, noting that nationwide employment prognosticators say academia isn't turning out engineers and computer scientists fast enough for the explosive industry. Just this past week he got a call from a firm, "but we had nothing to offer."


In engineering, computer and electrical engineering rank among the hottest fields, but prospects are bright for just about all specialties. To keep up with demand, the university a few years ago made computer engineering a separate program from electrical engineering. Its enrollment has jumped from just a few students at the start to more than 60 now, said Allen Stubberud, chairman of the electrical and computer engineering department and acting dean of the School of Engineering.

Gerardo Gallegos, president of the campus chapter of an electrical engineering organization, knows well how good it is. He had little trouble landing a job as a design engineer with Fluor-Daniel in Irvine and talked to a number of other firms.

"We're pretty much a hot commodity out there," he said.

Long-term prospects seem healthy.

"Employers are telling us these trends will continue," said Patrick Scheetz, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "Computers, automation, networks, robotics are here to stay."

At Printronix, a small Irvine firm that designs and manufactures a range of computer printers, officials said that in the past few years they focused recruiting efforts on UC Irvine because of its proximity and an increasing regard for the engineering and computer science programs. This year, the company hired four graduates and plans to recruit several more in the years to come.

Even mainstays of the defense and aerospace industries report a surge in entry-level hiring, the result of their changing interests in the absence of large defense contracts. As a result, firms such as Hughes Corp. increasingly are looking for engineers to design telecommunications software instead of torpedoes.

"There certainly is a contrast between what we had in the early '90s as compared to right now," said John Wilhite, who heads Hughes Corp.'s college recruitment program.

"In the early '90s, students were looking for jobs, and now what we are beginning to see is many of the students are being sought out for jobs," Wilhite said. "Some students are not participating in the recruitment process because they have received so many contacts. Computer science majors can sit at their computer and be hired."

Now the question is whether educators can keep up with demand.

The computer science department received 1,200 applications for the program, double that of three years ago, Pazzani said. About 773 undergraduates were enrolled, a 26% increase from three years ago.

Computer engineering will enroll 120 freshmen in the fall, but Stubberud said it could have accepted 50% more had the university not imposed an enrollment cap to keep costs down.

"I think the School of Engineering could double in size in five to 10 years, no problem, in terms of demand," Stubberud said. "It is a matter of resources."

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