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Tech recruiters were once welcomed on campus. Now they face protests

Suhauna Hussain, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Liza Mamedov-Turchinsky was beginning her junior year at UC Berkeley when she heard the data-mining company Palantir was coming to campus for a recruiting event. She wasn't happy about it.

Palantir is among 43 companies that pay the school $20,000 each year for "unique access" to electrical engineering and computer science students for recruiting purposes. The company provides software to the U.S. military, law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which it uses to screen migrants and conduct workplace raids.

On Sept. 5, she texted a handful of friends who shared her views on the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy and the tech companies whose software ICE relied on to implement it. With Palantir coming to campus on Sept. 24, she wrote, "let's organize to get them to drop it or disrupt?"

Because the event catered to honors students within the department, few others had heard about it. As word got around, the number of people in the group chat ballooned. Soon, it had spawned a new club, Cal Bears Against ICE, which publicized the event and planned a protest.

One by one, under pressure from activists, student groups sponsoring the event withdrew their participation. The day before the scheduled session, Palantir canceled it.

Fall is recruiting season for tech companies at colleges, where students flock to booths at career fairs for lucrative positions at the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google. The biggest companies spend hundreds of millions each year to hire people trained in fields such as artificial intelligence, software engineering and data science to feed their rapid growth. Part of that effort is hyper-focused on college students, with companies flooding campuses with recruiters and swag as they compete fiercely for fresh talent.

 

As demand for high-tech skills continues to rise, companies vie to vacuum up the strongest graduates in science, math and data, said Martha Heller, chief executive of tech recruiting firm Heller Search Associates. Their collective appetite is prodigious. When Amazon recruits at Carnegie Mellon University, it books up eight conference rooms in a career center on campus. It is typical for the company to deploy 20 recruiters on campus at a time, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

"Students are digital natives," Heller said. "Beyond having the high-tech skills, companies getting their perspective on how the market is changing is of vital importance."

It wasn't all that long ago tech was seen as the best possible place for students to land jobs post-graduation. The pay was high -- six-figure base salaries and equity grants that could be worth millions -- and the companies touted themselves as the answer to society's ills, unlike the investment banks and management consultancies that competed with them for top talent. The proportion of Harvard students pursuing careers in tech tripled from 2011 to 2016, from 4% to 12%, according to the Harvard Crimson.

But as attitudes toward the tech industry sour, those campus job fairs have become sites of contention.

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