You studied computer science but Big Tech no longer wants you. Now what?

Armed with a stack of CVs still warm from the printer, Ayara (a pseudonym) plunged into the career fair. The room was already packed with job-seekers. The second-year student wasn’t expecting much. In past years, a computer-science student at the University of California, Berkeley, could hope to emerge from this campus ritual with an interesting summer internship, possibly at a “FAANG” company – the acronym for Facebook (now Meta), Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. Ayara’s best friend had snagged an internship at Apple at a fair like this one.

But none of the FAANG firms was here this time. Neither were Spotify, Salesforce, Uber or Microsoft. In any case most of those companies and almost 50 others – “all the famous ones” – had already rejected her internship applications a few months earlier. And that was before the latest round of job lay-offs. There were 120,000 tech lay-offs in January and February alone; Alphabet, Google’s parent company, accounted for 10% of those lost jobs. (Meta would announce another 10,000 lay-offs shortly after the fair.) By the time the fair came round in March, Ayara had scaled back her ambitions. “Any company that will hire me is good, at this point,” she told me later.

By the time the fair came round, Ayara had drastically reduced her ambitions. “Any company that will hire me is good, at this point”

Ayara muscled her way to a crowded stall towards the back, where Juniper Networks was holding court. Founded in 1996 – long before most college students were born – Juniper is a workhorse of Silicon Valley: it makes a decent share of the hardware underpinning the internet, and software that controls that hardware. It has none of the “sparkle” (one of Ayara’s favourite words) of a FAANG company – its talent-acquisition manager told me that students often haven’t heard of it. Yet at this fair it had one irresistible selling point: it was still hiring interns.

Ayara caught the eye of a Juniper recruiter and they started talking. The fair was a bit like a cocktail party – the polite smiles, the hard sell – except without alcohol to quell people’s nerves. Some students were tapping their thighs or pinching the skin on their hands. Ayara put on a good show of appearing relaxed. As the recruiter scanned her résumé, she peppily described some of the highlights: interning at a subsidiary of Zipcar, a car-rental company; introducing emoji reactions within a messaging feature at PlayStation.

“Looks like you’ve worked for some big companies,” the recruiter said approvingly. “So why are you interested in Juniper? Do you know something about our company or just exploring?”

“I’m looking for a summer internship,” she said, gently dodging the question.

The recruiter, who wore a Berkeley alum badge on his T-shirt, nodded politely. He explained that a primary focus of the company is network security. “Are you interested in security?”

“Yeah,” she said tentatively, in the voice of somebody who had never considered pursuing a career as unglamorous – as unsparkly! – as security. After the fair, she submitted an application to Juniper. Weeks later, she had yet to receive a response.

It is not the ideal moment to enter the tech job market. For years the tech industry has paired huge profits with massive investments in expansion. Intoxicated by its own success during the pandemic, Big Tech binged on new recruits: Meta doubled its headcount over a short span. Now the good times are over. The tech giants have encountered stiffer competition (like TikTok) and tougher economic conditions, including manufacturing shortages and high interest rates. Pushed by investors to embrace unfamiliar concepts like “fiscal responsibility” and “long-term growth”, the industry has, over the past year and a half, shed some 300,000 workers, the most since the dot-com crash two decades ago. Amazon and Meta have rescinded job offers.

The effects are being felt in campuses all over the country. At Berkeley, would-be interns had formed a queue outside the career fair before its doors even opened. A few especially keen students wore suits and ties (a rare sight on campus where hoodies are de rigueur).

Even if they succeed in snagging an internship, their position is precarious. Some computer-science majors have had their internships cancelled; those with job offers have had their start dates pushed back, according to Sue Harbour, the executive director of the college career centre. They are the lucky ones. Several students told me that they had applied for jobs and internships at hundreds of companies with no offers to show for their efforts. When I introduced myself to a sophomore, who was majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, he asked, “Is The Economist hiring?” He was joking. Sort of.

More than 60 companies had set up stalls at the fair, ranging from government agencies and financial institutions to niche tech startups and, surprisingly, a spa. The biggest tech name there was SAP, a European software giant. The absence of the most famous names in tech probably gave a boost to the less flashy suitors at the ball. “We get passed by a lot at this table,” a recruiter from a local public-transport agency told me; she managed to draw a smattering of enquirers. Firms that had suddenly become rock stars included Bank of America, and a startup making self-driving trucks. Students often haven’t heard of Juniper, said Benjamin Chen, a talent-acquisition manager whom I found setting up his stall, because “we work behind the scenes”. He’s often greeted by students who gamely open with, “Oh tell me about Jupiter,” Chen said, laughing.

Big Tech binged on new recruits: Meta doubled their headcount over a short span. Now the good times are over

These companies have an appeal beyond simply being all that’s on offer. The quality that student job-seekers prize most in a company now is stability, according to a recent survey conducted by Handshake, a recruitment startup. Chen says he too has noticed a shift “towards a company that’s more stable and more predictable rather than something a little bit more, I guess, risky.”

This is a big adjustment in the culture of computer-science students at Berkeley. The large firms used to be imbued with an almost magical allure: no other companies were seen as worth working for. “The name is important because with the name comes recognition of your skills or your work,” Ayara told me. People say, “Oh, this person worked there.”

Some of this yearning comes from a sense of competitiveness and one-upmanship, driven by social media. Berkeley students had already gone through what one described as a “very stab-in-the-back” selection process to get on the computer-science course. Students who have secured jobs and internships crow about their success on LinkedIn, said Ayara.

The high salaries and gourmet food of the Big Tech firms were also part of the appeal. So are the sprawling campuses, which resemble “a playground”, said Vicky Li, a 21-year-old Berkeley graduate. Several students told me that Big Tech internships are far from demanding. Li has heard that interns at Google, for example, “get paid a ton” even though they work just two hours a day. (I asked Google about this and was told, “We do not accommodate part-time internships.”)

But students are now starting to wonder if they were seeing these Big Tech firms straight.

Li thinks she “romanticised” FAANG companies. She has started to see the perks they offered as gimmicks. Now she describes herself as “a little bit more anti-corporation”. She had realised she didn’t want to work in Big Tech before the lay-offs and is relieved she didn’t get sucked into it. She hopes to work as a product designer at a small company, ideally a startup, where she can get “solid experience rather than just chasing a bigger name”.

At the Juniper stall I met Arthur Kang, a Berkeley senior who had spurned offers from famous companies in favour of a job with a less glamorous firm this summer. Juniper offered him the opportunity to create something new rather than being a cog in the machine, he explained. His friends are puzzled by his decision, but he’s confident it was the right call. “Stability”, he told me, “includes not being fired right away.”

Charlie McCann is a features writer for 1843 magazine

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