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Sunday, April 7, 2024

Layoffs Broke Big Tech’s Elite College Hiring Pipeline

Eva Xie did it right. She went to the highly competitive Bronx High School of Science in New York City and then MIT, where she studied math and computer science with a specialization in artificial intelligence. After her first year, she landed a coveted summer internship at Facebook and was invited back to Menlo Park the next summer—traditionally a good sign that a student would later be offered a full-time job.

But in summer 2022, warning signs appeared that Xie’s future might be derailed from its well-charted trajectory. Rumors swirled inside the company that Meta, as it was now known, might institute a hiring freeze. Xie and her fellow interns weren’t worried, assuming the established pipeline that saw the company take its pick of students from elite colleges was a permanent fixture.

The interns were wrong. In an early morning email last August, Xie and the rest of her overachieving cohort became among the first to be affected by a wave of hiring freezes and layoffs in tech that would go on to claim hundreds of thousands of jobs over the coming months. Meta was sorry to inform them, the email said, that unlike previous years, it would not be extending successful interns guaranteed return offers of full-time jobs before they went back to school.

That fall, when Meta announced 11,000 layoffs, the company didn’t exclude its high-achieving interns. “They laid off everyone who just started, including those who got the highest ratings during their internships,” Xie says. That included MIT grads just ahead of her on the conveyor belt, which has, over the past decade, regularly brought new talent into the industry.

In recent months, many former interns and recent grads have found themselves among the thousands of people laid off at the major tech companies. That has prompted many soon-to-be grads like Xie, who once assumed they’d easily slide into employment at one of tech’s marquee names, to rethink the value of these companies, their own prospects, and in some cases, what they want from their careers.

Meta spokesperson Andrea Beasley did not respond to WIRED’s questions about its internship program, instead pointing to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s blog post announcing layoffs, which said the company overexpanded during the pandemic.

Amazon, which hosted about 18,000 interns in 2022, is considering reducing its intern class by more than half, according to a New York Times report. Amazon spokesperson Brad Glasser tells WIRED the company is “excited” to host interns in 2023 but is still finalizing its plans. Google, which laid off 12,000 people in January, will be hosting interns next year but has slowed hiring and will not be bringing on as many people as in previous years, according to Google’s director of intern programs Andrea Florence.  

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Claire Ralph, director of career services at Caltech, where about 40 percent of graduates go on to work in tech fields, has found herself counseling students worried by the recent retrenchment. “Caltech students are high achieving, and so they are often anxious. Certainly the news is the focus of their anxiety right now,” says Ralph, who also lectures in computer science. 

The connection between top-rated computer science schools and the largest tech companies has previously functioned a bit like the largest gas pipelines—well-oiled, dependable, lucrative, and controversial. Glossy tech companies touted themselves as dream workplaces with unbelievable salaries—entry-level software engineers made as much as $183,000 at Google in recent years—and jobs fit for the brightest minds. That provided a regular injection of young and eager workers, but also created a system criticized for ignoring talent with nontraditional resumes or backgrounds

Many students at elite schools bought into the marketing, shooting for the prestige, status, and salary associated with a job at a company like Google or Facebook. Though the largest tech companies are now more institutions than disruptive upstarts—often giving interns and new hires small, siloed tasks within their vast ecosystems—the combination of six-figure starting salaries with a top tech brand has remained compelling.

“Understandably parental pressure is often focused on the seeming stability of these big companies,” Ralph says. “In the past few years especially, many smaller companies struggled to hire.” 

Yet the fact that layoffs haven’t excluded the graduates of the top schools cleanly illustrates an argument that labor experts, computer science professors, and unions have been trying to make for years: The skills required for most of the jobs that power these larger institutions do not actually require degrees from the world’s premier computer science programs. If they did, Meta would hardly have choked off the internship pipeline it had spent years building, risking losing the trust of a generation of elite college graduates.

Ralph encourages students feeling let down by that shift to instead consider the benefits of smaller companies. Because they can’t pay top-notch salaries or trade on a glitzy name, they have more incentive to hire engineers and interns with skills they actually need. And they also must make more of an effort to retain them by giving them substantive work and building inclusive workplaces cultures. “I’ve long been a proponent of small- and medium-size engineering firms. We cap the number of large firms that join our partner program,” Ralph says. 

Despite the recent layoffs, tech jobs themselves are still abundant. While industry job postings have fallen slightly, the number of openings is about the same volume as in early 2018, according to data from industry group CompTIA’s January tech jobs report. But many of those jobs aren’t at the giant, household-name employers anymore. More than half of all tech jobs are actually outside the tech industry entirely, in fields like health care and finance, CompTIA data shows.

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Some recent grads have begun rethinking their ambitions. Noah Backman, who graduated from University of Missouri with a degree in computer science in December, has started to accept this reality. “When it comes to type of work, I have deviated a little bit away from just software engineering, and I’m starting to look more at IT roles,” he says.

For students in the US from overseas, adjusting to Big Tech’s new outlook is more difficult. Tech companies have traditionally been major sponsors of the high-skilled immigrant visas that international students need to be allowed to stay in the country. But holders of those H-1B visas have been swept up in the recent layoffs and companies have also rescinded some job offers.

One international computer science student tells WIRED he lost a job offer from Coinbase, and decided to extend his time in school by an extra semester to avoid the job market altogether. He spoke anonymously out of concern he could compromise his immigration process. “This coming H-1B cycle in March will also be my last chance, so I’m worried about it,” he says. “But it’s totally up to chance, so I can’t really do much about it,” he said.

Ralph hopes that in the coming year, Caltech’s internal tracking will show that student hiring for both internships and full-time jobs is tilting toward small and medium-size companies. She’s not terribly concerned about the job market for elite CS grads. The most high-achieving teenagers and young adults could end up in places that are often more suited for the skills they’re developing in school.

Xie says some of her MIT peers remain quite anxious about their own prospects, but she has embraced the opportunity Meta’s internship shock presented. She had previously never questioned the well-trod path she was taking, but is now planning, without regrets, to pursue further research in a computational neuroscience and machine learning lab for now, and expects to consider a higher degree after she graduates. Many of her peers are instead exploring quantitative computing jobs at hedge funds and proprietary trading firms. 

“In real life, it’s the skill set or the technical background that matters,” she says. “And your ability to learn things. In the end, a job is just a job. It’s more about what we want to achieve in our careers.”

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