CIO skips college, recruits high-school grads

Facing still competition for IT staff, CIO Fernando Gonzalez has changed his focus from recruiting college grads to recruiting young men and women right out of high school.

"I can teach technology," says Gonzalez, CIO at Byer California, a $400 million women's apparel manufacturer based on San Francisco. "What I need is people with a real customer service attitude. It's how you help the user who's having trouble."

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Fernando Gonzalez, CIO, Byer California

It's not that Gonzalez wouldn't like to hire college grads to fill open IT positions. But as a fashion apparel manufacturer located in downtown San Francisco it's hard to compete against all of the high-tech giants and startups in the area. "I'm just down the street from Yahoo and Twitter and LinkedIn. Would you rather work for me, where we have vending machines with ten-cent coffee, or in a company where there's a barista?"

While he can't compete against those companies on compensation, Gonzalez used to be able to hire new college grads, knowing that they'd work a few years until they could land a job at one of the big high-tech firms -- and he was OK with that. But with the boom in startups in the Bay Area over the last three or four few years it has become difficult to recruit any college grads at all.

So now Gonzalez reaches out to local high schools and recruits for his 25-person staff by word of mouth. The pitch? "We're a manufacturer of girls' and women's clothing. If you really want to learn a business and be exposed to every aspect of it, we're the company for you. And no one here is going to say no, you can't go and learn that." 

While it's no Google, Byer's IT organization does deploy some cool technologies, including a program that converts sewing patterns for new fashions into virtual clothing and renders it on avatars that show how the garment will fall and move as the avatar model walks down a runway. "You can spin the avatar around and see how it looks. You can even create tension on the avatar to see where the garment might be too tight.  We get a better idea of what it will look like before we make the first sample," he says.

New recruits are paired up with experienced staff to watch and learn -- and Gonzalez doesn't hesitate to send them out on calls. While he offers formal training, the incoming generation seems to prefer to learn by doing, he says. "A formal course, that's not in their thinking. They're not against learning. They want to be mentored."

So far the effort has yielded mixed results. High-school graduates aren't as mature as older college grads, and may need more mentoring. And some high school grads Gonzalez hired for entry-level help desk positions didn't like the idea of having to be available during set hours and have since left, he says. But one person has worked his way up to become a junior database administrator.

With the cost of college today, Gonzalez thinks working and going to school part time is not only more cost efficient, but demonstrates the kind of initiative that hiring managers like to see. "I'm not impressed with the person who went to college for four years, went on for a masters and is now looking for their first job. But the person who spent 10 years going to school part-time to get a degree and kept at it -- that tells me something."

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