JobFair

Computer science majors wait for their opportunity to speak with recruiters with Microsoft and Facebook at the Computer Sciences Job Fair.

ERIK LORENZSONN

To say that the 2017 Computer Science jobs fair this week at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was well-attended would be an understatement.

Over a thousand students and recruiters jostled about the Varsity Hall conference room in Union South on Tuesday afternoon. Lines of varying sizes snaked throughout the space, some even winding outside of it, as students — many wearing formal wear, almost all clutching resumes — waited to chat with potential employers from almost 50 different startups, tech firms and government institutions. Local institutions like Epic Systems and American Family Insurance had booths side by side with global brands like Facebook and Bloomberg.

The fever pitch level of activity was a sign of how fierce industry demand is for the university’s computer science talent, according to the event’s organizers.

The Computer Science Department does not have readily available numbers on the job prospects of graduates from the program. However, Barton Miller, a computer science professor with the university, estimated that more than 95 percent of students graduate with a job offer in hand.

“The demand is almost unending,” said Miller.

Part of that demand isn’t unique to UW-Madison. Across the country, employers are hankering for talent in the computer sciences. According to the nonprofit Code.org, there are 493,000 open jobs in the field.

Still, Miller said that Wisconsin also has a particularly high pedigree. The most recent U.S. News and World Report ranking of computer science institutions puts UW-Madison at Number 11 in the nation.

It means that the school gets a lot of attention from industry recruiters from around the world.

“There are people in the top Silicon Valley venture capital firms who track the graduating grad students from many of our faculty,” said Miller. “I talk with one guy, he calls me about once a year. He knows where every Ph.D. student I’ve produced has gone.”

While employers at the fair were competing for students’ attention, it was also clear from the longest lines that many students were competing for the attention of certain employers — namely, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.

Jon Stewart, a University of Wisconsin-Madison computer science student, said that he waited for about an hour for a chance to speak to Facebook recruiters. He said the experience was comparable to Walt Disney World.

“The people in line right now might not even get to (the front) by the time the job fair is over,” he said, as he waited his turn for a chance to talk with Epic Systems recruiters.

Across the room was a booth for the state of Wisconsin’s information technology division. For that station, there was no line.

“It’s not flashy. It’s not Microsoft and not Amazon,” acknowledged the recruiter there. “But if someone is looking for more stability, it might fit some people’s ideas of where they want to go.”

It’s not uncommon for politicians or industry leaders to point to the UW-Madison computer science department as key player for economic development in the state. However, a lot of the computer science talent that the UW-Madison produces does not stick around the state.

Many of the students at the fair said that they were eyeing jobs on the West Coast. Stewart said plenty of his peers already had offers at big out-of-state Wisconsin firms.

“A bunch of people already have a position already lined up at a place like Microsoft. I have a friend who’s locked in a thing with Texas Instruments,” he said.

Rachel Neill, a human resources consultant for tech firms in Madison and a leader in the startup community, said that the tendency for UW tech talent to leave is a challenge in her line of work. Neill said she thinks that a lot of that has to do with what it means to have a high-profile brand on a resume.

“I think there are people who know that if they get into a Google or an Amazon, they’ll open up opportunities down the road,” she said.

That’s certainly the case for Stewart.

“The more prestigious of a place I can go, the better,” he said.

However, Miller said the tendency for students to leave for the coasts is becoming less true.

“Fifteen years ago, if you graduated with a computer science degree, you were probably leaving for Silicon Valley or Austin,” he said. “Now, I’m seeing a huge increase in the number of students who are staying here in Madison and in Dane County.”

While numbers on recent graduates specifically is not immediately available, data from the UW’s alumni network indicates that about 27 percent of alumni live in Wisconsin.

Madison institutions did get a significant portion of students’ attention at the jobs fair, particularly the health care technology giant Epic Systems and the mobile game developer PerBlue. Startups like the apartment-hunting website Abodo and the food delivery up-and-comer EatStreet also received a steady flow of traffic.

For some of the students there, location was less important than the quality of the job they could potentially get.

“For me, location is not the biggest factor,” said one student, Shi Jin Chew. “The working environment is the big factor.”

Chew said that he’s particularly attracted to startup-style workspaces, where creativity and brainstorming are front and center.

Neill said that local companies could stand to change the ways they recruit young talent by focusing on things like work environment, company culture and pay.

“I find that people enjoy being in Madison. They just don’t know about the opportunities,” she said.

Neill added that there’s also a lot of potential for Madison to bring back alumni who leave for the coast.

“Maybe you get to a point where you don’t want to spend four grand a month on rent,” she said.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.