Hayden Waisanen will walk across the stage today and begin his metamorphosis from a college student in T-shirts and sandals to Silicon Valley young professional in slightly more expensive, pressed T-shirts.
Waisanen spent the past five years toiling away in computer science classes at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, and it has paid off with a salary of more than $70,000 a year as he joins 270 fellow students who will graduate today.
Mines students such as Waisanen are highly sought-after by companies all over the country. In 2011, Mines students reported taking more than 150 plant trips, which are usually part of a second interview in the interviewing process. Most students with computer science and engineering majors had three or four plant trips before accepting a job offer.
Waisanen had several interviews with big companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Garmin. But he decided to take a job at a smaller, up-and-coming tech company, IMVU, in Silicon Valley in California as a software engineer.
"I'm really excited to get out and see the world," Waisanan said while taking a study break in the Surbeck Center on the Mines campus.
As he pulled his laptop out of his messenger bag with "I love Linux" and Firefox stickers on it, he said he was born in South Dakota and graduated from Lead-Deadwood High School in 2008.
The small-town kid with an affinity for algorithms took a trip to the nation's tech mecca for an interview with IMVU this spring and immediately knew the big city of San Francisco was more his style.
"I just really like the culture," he said. "You can see the tech influence. I went to a sushi shop, and there was a roll called the megabyte. It was amazing, pure amazing. I think it had salmon in it, but I'll definitely be going back there."
Another grad moving to the big city is Austin Wentz, whose computer science degree landed him a job at Amazon in Seattle making about $100,000 a year as a software development engineer.
The St. Thomas More graduate took a job early in his senior year at Mines. Amazon flew him out to Seattle in October and he was offered a job four days after the interview.
"Initially we weren't considering Seattle, but when we went there for my interview — my wife came along — we both loved it," Wentz said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity, and we would regret it if we didn't go.
Despite slow gains in the economy and the job market, Mines students are doing better than most grads.
The job placement rate for Mines students is 97 percent to 98 percent, according to Darrell Sawyer, director of the Career and Professional Development Center at Mines. Sawyer said the numbers only include those students who get a career in the area of study.
That's a far cry from what happens elsewhere. Many graduates are not able to find jobs using their degrees.
According to a January report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, about 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests requires less than a four-year college education.
Eleven percent are in occupations requiring more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree, and 37 percent or about 5 million are in occupations requiring no more than a high-school diploma, according to the report.
There is hope for some graduates who are willing to work hard, according to another study from Michigan State University that says the new college labor market is inching ahead this year with a 3 percent gain over last year.
"Overall the market continues to improve, clawing its way back to the robust hiring in 2007," wrote Dr. Phil Gardner, Director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.
"The opportunities are out there for graduates who know where they want to go, know how to get there and, because of their preliminary work on career goals, have built a network of professional relationships (especially with alumni), they can tap for assistance with their job search," Gardner wrote.
Black Hills State University officials said they are starting to see more opportunities for the more than 400 students graduating there today.
“Students who are coming to the Student Success Center for application assistance seem much more optimistic and positive about their employment prospects than in the two years prior," said Sara Elias, career development specialist at BHSU. "There are certainly more job openings for them to apply for — in the region and nationwide."
Return on investment
With discouraging news about the college grad job market, many high school graduates are asking whether a degree is worth it. And the answer seems to lie in the field of study and university attended.
That is where Mines students have another advantage. Mines is ranked 25th of more than 15,000 colleges for return on investment, according to a report released Tuesday by PayScale, a company that aggregates data on pay and college costs.
Mines ranks fifth out of 455 for public in-state institutions.
"In this uncertain economic climate, understanding the potential return on the investment in education is vital," said Katie Bardaro, lead economist at PayScale.
The average starting salary for Mines' graduates is $62,696 with salaries ranging from $38,500 to $103,000, according to Sawyer. Payscale lists the typical salary for graduates at $57,300.
Black Hills State didn't fare as well in the survey. It was ranked 1,487th out of 1,511 with a typical starting salary of $33,800. The report said salaries for BHSU graduates range from $22,957 to $110,595 for jobs in the Rapid City area.
Engineering and research universities dominated the PayScale list this year.
For a Mines student starting in 2012, the estimated cost for a degree is $85,830, according to PayScale. The 30-year return on investment is estimated at $1.2 million.
For a BHSU student starting in 2012, the estimated cost for a degree is $73,760 making the 30-year return on investment, according to PayScale, is a negative $17,500.
The estimated average cost of attendance — including tuition, general fees, room, board, and books/supplies — for an in-state Mines student entering as a freshman four years ago and graduating today is $57,790, according to the school's registrar. The estimated average cost of attendance for an out-of-state student is $64,314.
Computer science continues to dominate the demand scale at Mines. "There are a lot of industries that need software people," Sawyer said.
He said metallurgical engineering is also in demand along with mining and electrical engineering. Mechanical engineering is making a comeback as the manufacturing industry picks up nationally.
One student working in the manufacturing industry is Carl Johnson, who attended both Mines and Black Hills State. He got a degree in interdisciplinary science with an emphasis in business administration through a program that let him get his major at Mines and minor at BHSU.
Johnson graduated in May 2012 and is now the operations and safety manager at RPM & Associates, a manufacturing firm in Rapid City, where he gets to use his unique skill set from both courses of study.
He said he wasn't interested in moving out of Rapid City since he wants to raise his two young children near his family and his wife's family.
"I was really happy to find a good job here locally," Johnson said. "One where I can buy a house and raise a family and just live the dream."