A Millennial's Outlook on the Changing Market for Tech Jobs / by Daniel Ehrman

NOTE: I took a break from writing for 3 months to focus on a big move for a new job on the other side of the country. On the off-chance that someone was actually reading this blog, I extend my apology and thank you for your patience....

 

First off, I want to say that I don't like calling myself a millennial because of the negative connotation it often bears: the word tends to evoke imagery of trophy-laden kids whose upbringing of unconditional encouragement and positive feedback is now leaving thousands of employers feeling like workplace parents (or worse, babysitters). But for better or for worse, that's what I am--born in '88, entering the new-graduate job market in 2012, and now a computer engineer 2 years out of school moving onto his next job.

So what does this (largely uninformed) millennial have to say about the job landscape for new (tech) grads of the 21st century? Well, let's take a look at 5 key concerns that we're thinking about as we join this new workforce from the ground floor.

 

1. "I'm Feeling Lucky"

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The scope of knowledge now contained across the entire tech industry is so overwhelming that college is more of a sampler of the "real world" than anything else. We study everything from transistor-based amplifier design to SQL databases. So when we finally make it to that on-campus career fair, we're pretty much taking a shot in the dark. Internships tend to make the decision a little easier, but after just a few brief work experiences, it's still tough to hit the target spot on. Especially in this modern climate of seemingly endless opportunities, it's difficult to expect your millennial employees to truly know what they want...which brings me to my second point....

2. The Dream Job

We want that dream job. We've grown up being told--truthfully or not--that we're special and that we deserve the best. This of course creates complications for both the employee and the employer. From our perspective, there's no "dream job handbook," and so the best we can do is guess and reassess. From the employer's perspective, it's a big leap of faith. You're hoping you've snagged that one diehard-loyal super-energetic rockstar game-changer who's in it for the long haul.

But the truth is that no company today truly expects that. It's old news that millennials are hard to please, and they have no problem moving on if their expectations aren't fully met. (Note: I am not endorsing this job-hopper mentality. For further reading, it's worth checking out this interesting, and controversial, take on the issue from entrepreneur and venture capitalist Mark Suster.)

The trouble with this dream-job expectation though is that at some point, life happens (marriage, kids, etc.). Eventually, life trumps work, and at that point, there's not much room left for pivoting. So for us millennials, this creates a very real need to find the perfect career before we've exhausted the runway. We've seen our parents' midlife crises, and we're working (perhaps naively) to avoid it.

3. Specialization and Commoditization

Although we may have thought we were special being able to write code in middle school, as soon as we got to college, we discovered that there are many, many people who can do what we do--and do it better. And the competition is even more real when we consider the rapidly expanding workforce in newly industrialized countries. Add to that the fact that this generation is highly mobile, and you have a truly massive pool of talent to pick from--and compete with.

This commoditization of basic programming skills means that rather than looking for good programmers, big-name companies like Google and Facebook are looking for quirky, creative candidates who founded their school's unicycling club or recorded an album of original yodling songs. Writing stellar code just gets you past the filter; it's not going to get you the interview (let alone the job). In response, we have to specialize to prove our worth--to build an arsenal of skills and hobbies that make us truly unique and valuable.

4. Estimating an Education's Worth

There is a remarkable trend unfolding right now in the tech industry. More and more, companies are posting job descriptions which list every conceivable major (e.g. "BS, MS, PhD") or in some cases list no degree requirement at all, opting instead for "applicable experience."

Tech companies know that an MS or a PhD alone does not necessarily yield a more creative thinker than the BS candidate. However, this message is confusing to those of us who have grown up in the era of dime-a-dozen degrees, hearing that a post-graduate education is an effective means of differentiating yourself from the competition.

So what do we do? Stay in school or enter the real world, perhaps prematurely? Fortunately, there's a third choice: online distance education (of which I am a user). More than ever now, people have the means to continue their education as they work, perhaps ushering a new phrase into our lexicon: work-school-life balance.

But is it worth it?

Technically, employees holding master's degrees in the field of computer engineering are earning incrementally more than those without, so even if the company doesn't foot the bill, the cost of the education could be amortized over the course of 5 to 10 years at a higher salary.

But more importantly, the standards are changing. Other than the fact that a bachelor's degree is almost universally held among applicants in the field, prestigious universities are now distributing course material to thousands of remote students for free. It's only a matter of time before a master's degree is the new standard for passing the automated resume filters.

5. Joe Startup vs. Established Player

Recall: millennials are the best (or so they've been told), and with that mentality comes some bit of narcissism--believing that we are destined to do truly great things with our lives. So it stands to reason that millennials are perhaps more likely than prior generations to seek out roles in relatively smaller organizations where there is a lot of high-priority visible work to be done.

The democratization of software publishing within the last few years has made these kinds of opportunities even more attainable. As the barriers of entry to starting your own company have reduced to little more than pushing your app to the Google Play Store, Silicon Valley and similar tech hubs have been exploding with fresh, viable, exciting jobs for thousands of recent grads.

While there is no universal algorithm for making the choice--startup or big guy--it's becoming clear that the sentiment among young people is changing quickly. Whereas merely 5 years ago, Apple may have been the coolest place in town, today, they're somewhat of a bore among the new class of engineers. And it's not just Apple: one colleague of mine described Google as "the Walmart of Silicon Valley." "So many people work there," he said, "it's just not cool anymore."

 

So what?

So what does this all mean? Well, in short, we have a rapidly expanding job market being filled with a dramatically different generation of engineers. We're also experiencing somewhat of a tech bubble at the moment wherein multi-billion dollar valuations are enabling small companies to offer their young adult employees extravagant benefits, the likes of which their parents never could have imagined.

Yet, when the bubble has popped, and the benefits have lost their luster, what will remain is a vast pool of millennial techies remembering again what matters most--the work, the challenge, and the joy of creation.