BOSTON Students at one of America's top business schools see evidence that high-technology, startup and alternative energy companies will hire more actively this year after a difficult 2009 for graduates.
MBA students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School recently took their annual "tech trek," testing out the demand for summer internships for the class of 2011 and full-time jobs for this year's graduates.
Students fanned out across Boston, Silicon Valley and Seattle, meeting with energy and high-tech enterprises. In December others visited six Boston-area biotechnology companies.
And what they found gave them reason to hope; tech outfits are finally seeing demand pick up, energy companies are pushing hard to develop renewable fuels and together the two sectors could lead the way out of a job market morass.
Employment growth in the United States has famously been powered by small- and medium-sized businesses. So far in the fragile economic recovery many small firms have been reluctant or unable to take on new staff.
"Our MBAs are unbowed, and they came back with a lot of gusto," said Sloan adviser Paul Denning, who has made the trek to California for several years. "The general consensus is that things are better, particularly in Silicon Valley."
Last year, Denning said, even tech giant Google, "was really not hiring. Everything had contracted after the financial market collapse." Now, green shoots are popping up.
Google did hire some Sloan graduates from the 2009 class but was not among the top 13 hirers listed by the school.
COMPANIES ARE OPTIMISTIC
Jaclyn Loo, 26, who will graduate in 2011, said she hopes to secure a summer internship in e-commerce or mobile technology -- perhaps with a little guidance from Sloan's robust alumni network in the San Francisco Bay area.
"Overall, the companies were optimistic. The economy is starting to turn around little by little," she said after meeting with firms from computer giant Apple and design consultants IDEO to web reservation firm Open Table.
Belt-tightening during the recession, which started in December 2007, has left many companies with aging equipment badly in need of refurbishment. That is already boosting the results of large tech companies and could trickle down to smaller ones and jump-start a fresh round of start-ups.
This week, a National Association for Business Economics survey showed 44 percent of U.S. companies expect to increase capital spending this year, with much of the investment in computers and communications equipment.
MIT's students are among the brightest in America. In 2009, Sloan was ranked No. 5 among business schools by U.S. News and World Report. Normally its graduates are in heavy demand, many landing six-figure starting salaries at high-profile firms.
But 2009 was a tough year for even the best qualified as the U.S. economy shed millions of jobs, companies cut to the bone and financing for new businesses largely dried up.
Students said many 2009 graduates spent months seeking work, always with the knowledge that a new crop of competitors was coming up behind them.
The class of 2010 senses a change.
"It seems that most of the companies we're speaking to are looking to hire. They're keeping us in mind," said Mike Norelli, 26, who graduates in June.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Sloan students visited Oasys Water, a start-up with seven employees which hopes to redefine the small but growing market for water reuse and desalination using technology developed at Yale University.
Chief executive Aaron Mandel said the company relies on "a lot of consulting, a lot of outsourcing, and a lot of free work." But a recent Department of Energy grant to demonstrate its water purification prototype could propel Oasys' slim headcount into double figures by year-end, he said.
(Editing by Mark Egan and Cynthia Osterman)