Help Really Wanted

GLENN FORD, 17, IS A PRETTY TYPICAL senior. He likes sports and studies English, trigonometry and history. But come afternoon, he morphs into a Future Technician of America--thanks to an innovative training program sponsored at his Wilmington, Del., high school by Microsoft Corp. When Ford graduates next spring, he will be a certified ""systems engineer,'' ready for a $30,000-a-year job running computers at a local bank, where he already works part time. With a college degree, which he expects to get in night school, he hopes to pull in more than $100,000.

That's big money for almost anyone, let alone a kid. It's also a sign of the times. The Information Revolution is speeding ahead of its most valuable resource: workers with high-tech smarts. They go by many names in Silicon Valley: Web masters, intranet designers, applications engineers. But they share two things: an ability to run the complicated machines that increasingly govern our lives--and the fact that there are no longer enough of them to go around. The Information Technology Association of America estimates that 190,000 high-tech jobs are now vacant. The Department of Commerce reckons the nation will need a million more information-technology workers by the year 2005 than will be available. All this at a time when fewer students are graduating with college degrees in computer science and electrical engineering--24,200 in 1994, compared to 42,000 in 1986, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The crunch has been here for some time, of course. What's new is how employers are struggling to cope, and the extravagant lengths to which they'll go to attract talent. Consider Todd Giles, a ""server engineer'' with NetObjects in Redwood City, Calif. Five years out of Stanford, he's a golfer who firmly balances work with pleasure. He awakens many mornings by 9 or 10, hits the links by 11 and plays until late afternoon. Then he goes to work--until midnight or so. ""I got several different offers,'' he says, unabashedly adding that he chose his employer because it accommodated his unorthodox schedule. And yes, he'll soon ask for a raise.

Salaries are soaring in this seller's market. A typical programmer, for instance, earns between $70,000 and $90,000 a year, with annual pay hikes trending toward 20 percent. But it's not unusual to earn much more. One of Giles's ex-roommates from Stanford earns $150 an hour as a freelance software programmer. He plans to work a couple more years, then retire to Lake Tahoe by the time he's 30. Signing bonuses ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 are not unusual. Bidding wars are common. A&R Partners, a high-tech public-relations firm in Redwood City, recently offered a job to one young man. As his business cards were being printed, he came back and said another agency would pay $10,000 more. After A&R matched that bid, the would-be recruit returned once again, saying the rival would let him work three days a week. A&R gave up.

Money and time aren't the only lures. Companies such as Oracle and 3Com tout their perks: subsidized laundry service and day care, workplace fitness centers and (this being techdom) stock options. Others go on ""nerd raids.'' When Microsoft gets wind of layoffs at a rival, says recruiting director David Pritchard, it pursues potential hires with all the drive and wiles of an NBA scout. ""We figure out where they have lunch, where they go out for drinks after work,'' he says. ""Then we send out the recruiting staff.''

Increasingly, the biggies are going right to the source for qualified recruits. Intel has begun turning to high-school students in Arizona and New Mexico for work in its local microprocessor ""fabs.'' Computer Associates has funded an expanded computer-science program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, partly to tap its labor pool. Microsoft will have set up programs like Glenn Ford's at 125 high schools nationwide by the end of next year. Skills 2000, as the company calls it, is an effort to ""tackle the bigger problem,'' says the program's director, Sam Jadallah. That's making sure there's a new crop of the nerds these companies can't live without.