Like the swallows to Capistrano and the New England Patriots to the NFL playoffs, the MBAs are returning to Silicon Valley.
While hard data is hard to come by, MBA candidates who have been touring the Valley in recent weeks say job prospects are better now than they have been since the Valley ran into trouble with the end of the dot-com era.
"Everyone out here seems to be hiring to some degree," said Arun Prakash, an MBA candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was among a group of college students that toured roughly 40 companies, including Intel, Yahoo and Cisco Systems, as part of MIT's annual "Tech Trek" to Silicon Valley. The students paid their own way for the five-day trip, and they were hardly the only job hunters in the area. MBA candidates from Harvard Business School and the Wharton School, among others, were also in town.
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After three consecutive years of decline, hiring in Silicon Valley has started to rebound, according to California's Employment Development Department.
Anecdotal evidence, including comments from graduate-school students now exploring the job market, suggests that while hiring in the technology sector isn't as robust as it was in the dot-com era, it will continue to grow at a steady rate.
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"Some finance guy at Salesforce.com told me he had never had an internship before last summer," Prakash said. "Next year, he wants two. You can feel the growing energy at these companies."
Jobs data for tech hiring in the Valley backs up that notion. Much of what California state statisticians consider Silicon Valley falls within an area that covers the cities of San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara. California's Employment Development Department reported that the area saw 34,300 full- and part-time jobs filled in November 2005 at companies that fall within what the department considers the "Information" category. This includes Web search engines, telecommunications, software publishers and data processing companies. That marked a 2.4 percent increase from the 33,500 positions filled in November 2004.
"We've seen job growth in this area the past two years," said Ruth Kavanagh, a labor market consultant for the state, adding that the upturn follows three consecutive years of declines.
Certainly, nobody is predicting a return to the go-go days of the late 1990s, when start-ups offered vice president positions to people straight out of school. In November 2000, at the height of the dot-com bubble, 46,600 information jobs in the Valley were filled, which is 35 percent higher than the current level.
"One of the larger companies I visited told us they had a triple-digit number of job openings," said Ying Pan, a second-year student at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "The last few years, many of my friends had a tough time finding internships. This year, the companies are telling us to log onto their Web sites and are instructing us on how to turn in our resumes."
The MIT graduate students added that they have received more interest from tech companies this past winter than last year. Yahoo executives, for one, told the visiting students that the company brought on several thousand new employees last year, many of them in the Valley, and still had more positions left to fill.
Yahoo said it hired 880 employees in the third quarter, bringing its work force to 9,660 employees. That's up 38 percent from the 7,022 employees on the company's payroll in the same period a year earlier.
This has been the busiest hiring year in the history of the Internet pioneer.
That said, tech is hardly the biggest draw for MBAs. The Sloan School reported that of the jobs accepted by MIT students so far in this school year, 28.1 percent came from the consulting field. Financial services snagged the next largest share with 26.2 percent. The tech sector was a distant third at 13.2 percent.
But tech companies could boost those numbers if they can continue to offer job candidates the opportunity to work on products "that change peoples' lives," Prakesh said. He said he was inspired by Google and Apple Computer and after visiting Kodiak Networks, a San Ramon, Calif., company that specializes in push-to-talk technology, which allows a cell phone to act like a walkie-talkie.
One thing the tech industry offers that consulting and financial services rarely do is a chance to be entrepreneurial. Many of the business students touring the Valley said they hope to start their own companies, and the best place to do that is likely in tech.
"We want to know what it's like to be an entrepreneur," Prakash said. "Back in 1998, all it took out here was three guys and a business plan and you could get funding. Now, some of the venture guys told us about how tough it is to get funding, all the hard work, and rejection that go along with starting a business. It's not glamorous, but we all want to give it a try some day."
When it comes to luring the top MBA talent, the tech industry still has a few clouds hanging over it. Many business students wonder if the sector will continue to ship jobs overseas, said Yue Cathy Chang, 26, a second-year student at Sloan.
"I've heard comments from people who wonder about manufacturing jobs going to China and software jobs going to India," Chang said. "The high-tech sector is changing very much and some of them may be reluctant to go into that industry because of that change."
And most of the students interviewed lamented the relatively low profile of tech companies on MIT's campus. Recruiters from the banking and consulting industries, which are known for paying large salaries and offering plenty of perks, have pursued students all semester, the students said. Most tech company recruiters are on campus for only a fraction of that time.
"Without any contacts, it would be hard to catch on with a start-up or even a larger company that's 3,000 miles away," said Eric Dittmar, a second-year student at Sloan. "Some people who really want to be in tech may figure that they can spend two or three years in the banks or consulting and use them to get out west."
One tech segment pouring more resources into recruiting is venture capital.
Venture capital firms such as Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Sequoia Capital have begun to more actively recruit students from MBA programs, although most of the hiring still revolves around landing lateral hires who have worked elsewhere a few years.
Partly, it's a historical issue. Many of the firms eliminated positions after the crash and now need to restaff. Some are also closing new funds, so they need to hire employees who will be around for the 10-year life of the fund, said Dave Epstein, a partner at CrossLink Capital.
The firms are also investing in media and Internet companies that some old-guard partners may not be in tune with.
"The business has gotten really busy again. A lot of firms are hiring these days," said Raj Atluru, a partner at Draper Fisher Jurvetson.
For that reason, many MIT students are encouraged.
"At least two companies have expressed interest in me," said Chang, who was working for Sun Microsystems when the tech boom went bust and saw her company options drop from $52 in value to $2. "I am definitely coming back here, and I know that the growth is slower than in 1999. But this time I know it's more realistic."
CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.