Forging the links of loyalty

Internships and ingenuity are the keys to keeping Canadian grads at home

Robert Sheppard May 10 1999

Forging the links of loyalty

Internships and ingenuity are the keys to keeping Canadian grads at home

Robert Sheppard May 10 1999

Forging the links of loyalty

Internships and ingenuity are the keys to keeping Canadian grads at home




Nancy Walsh wanted job security when she graduated from the University of New Brunswick last month, a coveted degree in electrical engineering under her arm. But at 23, she had no interest in being a work slave. And by realizing this, Brampton, Ont.-based Nortel Networks won her over. Three years ago, when Walsh did an internship with Nortel as part of her studies, the company discovered that she liked to work with high-school students—and sponsored her to help with Junior Achievement groups in Ottawa and Fredericton. Returning to UNB for her final two years, she acted as a Nortel “ambassador,” a part-time job to raise the corporate profile on campus. The result: a permanent job offer last November, and a month-long trip to Europe this summer before she relocates to Ottawa at Nortel’s expense. “Nortel made me feel like a person, not a number,” Walsh recalls. “The very first thing they did was send me information about their softball team.” Does she play softball? Walsh doesn’t miss a beat: “I do now.”

Walsh is a catch, by anyone’s standards. Articulate, outgoing, with high-level computer skills, she has also been president of the undergraduate society for engineers at UNB— exactly the kind of well-rounded profile that corporate recruiters hunger after. The fast-paced world of information technology represents a special challenge for companies intent on riding the silicon wave. One U.S. study predicts a

million unfilled high-tech positions by 2002; a Canadian study puts the figure here at 20,000 by 2000. Hot employees are in such demand that one American firm raffled off a Sony PlayStation at Ontario’s University of Waterloo last fall just to prompt students to drop off their résumés.

Graduates are also well paid. Stephan Meyer, a top engineering graduate with experience in designing fibre-optic networks, has a starting salary of $47,000 at Nortel, plus stock options and a signing bonus of $5,000. Top U.S. firms pay the Canadian equivalent of between $68,000 and $83,000, with signing bonuses ranging up to $23,000—all with intense work environments, enlivened in some cases by the occasional stress-relieving blowout to Las Vegas or some other fun place, all on company expense. But as the recruitment wars intensify, sophisticated players are aiming their sights at ever younger students, employing more creative pitches—not just high-tech toys or runaway salaries, but the subtle lures of variety, loyalty and lifestyle.

Take Nortel, the former manufacturing arm of Bell Canada, now heavily into the business of the Internet. A voracious consumer of young talent, it spends nearly $5 million a year on university recruitment, and employs 2,000 students annually through internships, work co-ops and summer jobs.

In the past four years, it has been hiring an average of 500 a year for permanent positions. A presence on Canadian campuses for at

least a decade, “Nortel is almost always the first to volunteer when you want some research help or sponsorship money,” observes Alan George, dean of mathematics at Waterloo. “There is no secret to it, they want a front-row seat.”

More than that, they want an intimate relationship with the performers—the top graduates from each of the 30 Canadian universities that offer high-grade computer programming. “Those are the 600 we are all after,” says Anne McKenna, Nortel’s senior manager for university recruitment. The trick is to get to the talent pool early and with a high degree of what she calls “personal relationship building.” Links to team managers are increasingly important. According to officials at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., one co-op student recently followed her Nortel manager to Australia because she wanted to complete the work they were doing. Another Nortel intern, Phuong Truong, invented a Web-based trivia game about the company when she returned to do her final year in computer science and math at the University of Western Ontario. “I gave away prizes—caps and sweatshirts and stuff,” says Truong, 24, now back permanently with Nortel in Ottawa. “Through the game, people would ask me what it was like to work there.” The lesson here: word of mouth counts. And it is spread at every opportunity.

Nortel has begun to keep tabs on promising students

High-tech rewards

Average starting salaries for Canadian high-tech grads, 1999

Software engineer $41,555

Systems programmer $40,598

Web developer $35,837


right from their freshman year. Last summer, it began a pilot project for high-school students in the Ottawa area, giving 30 high-tech achievers $1,000 scholarships to the university of their choice, plus summer jobs. “Some companies think if you get them early enough—at the end of second year—you can direct their research projects and lock them into your goals,” observes Arlene Fajutrao, an employment services co-ordinator at McMaster University in Hamilton. “They are getting much more aggressive.”

An increasing number of individual corporate promotions are now aimed at second-year students, just before they start their work-sharing co-op programs. What’s more, firms are trying to sell themselves as fun employers. Ottawa’s Corel Corp. grants afternoons off for such team-building exercises as floor hockey. Clearnet Communications has an entire floor of its east end Toronto office made into a playroom and gives each employee $500 a year to spend on something recreational—no paying off mortgages or credit-card balances.

Not every high-tech grad wants a corporate parent. An honours graduate in computer engineering, Adriano Bertucci, 24, sampled the recruitment offerings earlier this year. In the end, he decided to stay with the small partnership, Surrealty Corp., he and two fellow Waterloo students founded two years ago, even if it means continuing to subsist on a student diet. “These are my friends,” Bertucci says, “I’m really proud of what we do.” Ironically, their product is a Web-based virtual tour of campuses and business sites to promote student recruitment.

For those who crave a corporate career, the lures of the marketplace can be head turning. Nothing in his six co-op work terms prepared Vladimir Joanovic for the intense wining and dining of his graduating year, complete with Christmas presents and good-luck-on-your-exam cards. The 23-year-old Joanovic, with a newly minted bachelor of applied science in systems design engineering from Waterloo, found himself jetted to the Microsoft compound in Redmond, Wash., and to Austin, Tex., to meet with Trilogy Software Inc., a fast-growing office software company making a big splash on Canadian campuses. “It was pretty intense,” says Joanovic. Interviews went from 8:30 in the morning to 5 or 6 at night, with one manager after another. “By the end of the day, I just wanted to go back to my room and collapse.”

In the end, Joanovic chose Microsoft, although even he is not sure why. Was it the top dollar? Or the prestige of working for one of the great organizations of its time? In any event, he is not alone. This summer, between 15 and 18 classmates will be heading to Redmond for permanent jobs, over three per cent of Waterloo’s 485 graduating information technology students and a routine hire by Microsoft standards. Nortel took 45 Waterloo grads last year and is looking for the same again. But increasingly, that recruiting is taking place earlier, away from the mad chase scene of graduating year. “Around here, the big event is ranking day,” says Chris Vetterli, a co-op co-ordinator at Simon Fraser. That is when secondand third-year students, fresh

from three weeks of interviews, rank their co-op choices, while employers do the same, and Vetterli and her staff do the matchmaking. “Come graduation time, there are not too many IT students around here who don’t have jobs lined up,” says Vetterli. The links have already been forged.

Robert Sheppard


John DeMont

in Halifax