Can't find a programmer? Desperate software companies are advertising in high school newspapers these days -- and they're hitting pay dirt.
Teenage techies win praise for their passion, time and energy -- things many older workers don't have.
“Passion is the key,” says Grady Ogburn, a manager at Datametrics Systems Corp., in Fairfax, Va. “You have to be passionate about the new things the technology is capable of doing. You have to be a techno-geek, because it's easy for people who love the technology to stay on top of it.”
Two summers ago, Ogburn hired Brent Metz, then 15, as an intern. He turned out to be an extremely valuable Unix programmer for Datametrics, which develops software to help clients manage mainframe performance. Brent joined 15,000 other American youths 16-19 who worked as either programmers or systems analysts last year -- up from 4,000 in 1994, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Teens have time to surf the Worldwide Web and keep up with what's happening in technology, Ogburn points out.
“Older workers have jobs -- they're working to put bread on the table,” Ogburn says. “They can't surf the Web all day, and they certainly don't go home at night and play on the Web, which is what these kids do.”
While kids are surfing, they're also learning, says Travis Riggs, president of Creative Edge Software, in Sterling, Va., who hired 16-year-old Seth Berger to help develop video games.
Teenagers also have the energy needed to work the “crazy hours” required to get a new company off the ground, says Elliott Frutkin, president of four-year-old Ideal Computer Strategies, of Washington, D.C. Last summer, Frutkin hired Josh Foer to help develop Web pages for clients. He was astonished at what the 14-year-old could do -- like integrating a database to a Web site using the new “Cold Fusion” program.
“That's one of the really big skills people are looking for right now,” he says. Josh had learned it while playing around on the Web.
“He had also surfed enough Web sites to know the difference between a professionally done Web page and a homemade one,” Frutkin says, unlike most of the applicants who come to him when he advertises in the regular classified ads.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people who answer classified ads are not qualified,” he says. They are mostly “old school Cobol programmers” trying to pick up new skills. “They're definitely not as on top of the technology as Josh was,” he says.
Does he feel that employers discriminate against older programmers, as some industry critics have alleged?
“I don't care if someone is 15 or 50, if they have one of the hot skills I need,” he says. He advises anyone looking for a job in Web site development to teach themselves one of the new database-to-Web integration programs.
Both Ogburn and Frutkin said they do not understand why industry executives are complaining that the country is not producing enough graduates with four-year computer science degrees to fill all the country's high-tech job vacancies.
“You don't need a four-year degree to do a lot of this stuff,” Ogburn says. “You can't get a degree in passion for technology.”
He concedes that a four-year degree shows that a person has perseverance and diligence, and can prioritize and use time wisely. “But when I see a 4.0 [grade-point average] from Carnegie Mellon [University],” he says, “all that means is I have to pay them more.”
“Sure, we have people who learned their skills in the classroom,” Frutkin says. “But we also need tons of people who didn't get them that way.”
Frutkin has concluded that the best way to develop a long-term staff is to recruit college interns and give them on-the-job training. “We're trying to work with people who are less developed in their skills, less set in their ways. It takes new ways of thinking to be able to market effectively on the Internet.”
Some teens find their summer or part-time jobs so appealing they drop out of high school or decide not to go to college at all. Seth is seriously considering skipping college because he fears he will fall behind on his skills, and says he can gain more experience working.
Besides, the next video project he's scheduled to do for Riggs could net him a six-figure check. If he gives all that up and then shells out for college tuition, “That's over a quarter of a million dollars it would cost me to learn stuff I already know,” he says.
Computer-science teacher Donald Hyatt gets calls all the time from recruiters looking for summer interns or prospective employees among his students at prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in suburban Washington. He advises all his students to stay in school and go on to college.
“Most students realize that they need a long-term education, not just a few skills,” Hyatt says. “These kids could leave school right now and make $70,000 a year. It's hard to tell them not to do it. After all, after 29 years of teaching, I'm not making that much myself.”