Digital skills pay off with a cooler summer job

Hiring: A student with hardware and software talent can get valuable experience instead of a season of manual labor.

July 19, 1999|By Rasmi Simhan | Rasmi Simhan,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Last summer Kevin Hawkins worked as a "wire and cable technician." But don't let the title fool you.

"That just means I packed computer boards in cardboard boxes, and packed those boxes in bigger boxes," said Hawkins, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park from Cockeysville.

By the time Hawkins finished his full-time, $7-an-hour job at a warehouse, he figured he'd untwisted 14,000 wires from pegs.

This year he worked harder on the "skill" portion of his application for a summer job in computing. He designs charts and diagrams by computer for Hillel of Greater Baltimore, which oversees Jewish chaplaincy services on local college campuses.

It's not just the additional $1.50 he earns an hour that makes Hawkins happy. "I'm in air conditioning this summer," he said. "I'm not moving around all day long."

It doesn't take a rocket scientist -- or computer scientist, for that matter -- to fill positions that require technological skills. But employers say students who can work with word processors, spreadsheets and databases often find temporary positions that pay about $4 more an hour than minimum-wage summer jobs.

These summer jobs show up on a resume as office experience and provide references for future work.

"Most jobs require computer skills," David Erdody, information manager for the student employment office at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said as he scrolled through openings posted on the university's Web site.

"Listen to these," Erdody said. "Accounting clerk, research assistant, programming assistant, food services -- maybe not [that one] -- but it's still all about real-world experience with computers."

If students aren't familiar with the software an employer uses, general computer literacy helps them acclimate.

"When they're computer literate, they can learn new software very quickly," said Jo Ann Hogan, owner and president of Able Temporaries in Timonium. "We don't hesitate to send them out."

Knowing how to use Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint (a program for designing presentations) snagged one student a light secretarial job this summer that pays $10 an hour; her sister earns minimum wage as a cook in a cafe.

"I just sat at a computer and typed for a few hours," Faith Snyder, a Northwestern University junior, said of beginning the job at Westwood Computers in Clark, N.J. "And my sister stood over a stove and cut potatoes and made sandwiches for eight hours."

It doesn't take formal computer training to land a summer technology job. Hawkins said he learned page design working on his high school newspaper and producing a newsletter for a local retirement community. Others teach themselves how to program and create Web pages.

The Johns Hopkins University computer lab employs 25 students whose chores include helping new users, setting up hardware and preparing for the academic year. Technology services administrator Graham Bouton says he requires only basic word processing and Internet skills in hires -- the lab provides on-the-job training. That's how he began, as an undergraduate.

"I started out not knowing much computer-related, just having an interest in them," Bouton said. "The job gave me that opportunity."

There are signs that as the generation that grew up with computers hits the job market, it will take more skill for students to stand out in an applicant pool.

"Microsoft Office and Excel, those are pretty much a dime a dozen," said Drew Heles, manager of Hire Knowledge, a Baltimore-based temporary employment agency. "And some students are under the impression that if they've done one Web page that they know HTML, that if they've taken one class they know computers. That's not all it takes. The more experience, the better."

Students with an eye for graphic design and the skill to hand-code HTML (the markup language language that produces Web pages) can qualify for a growing number of positions in Web design. If they have experience with desktop publishing software or advanced Web design programs, they can do even better.

"With the luxury of really good training through classwork, students are emerging even before they've graduated with really marketable skills," Heles said. Many land jobs that pay up to $40,000 a year when they graduate.

Some students start earlier. Vicky Settar of Timonium began working with computers in a programming class at Dulaney High School. Intrigued by programming, she's majoring in computer science and Spanish at Clemson University.

This summer, as intern at the car leasing corporation PHH, Settar installs software, helps build hardware and assists employees with computer programs.

She says she's learned that computing jobs call for patience and problem-solving skills that may discourage students looking for cushy office work.

"The interest has to be there or you'll get frustrated when you have to solve a problem," Settar said. "Pay alone shouldn't be an incentive for any job."

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