Arts & technology students struggle to find desired employment, develop appropriate work portfolios from curriculum
He has 12 hours left in the ATEC program at UTD and is on the hunt for a job that will use the skills he learned in the classroom. But looking at how others in the undergraduate program have done in the past, Oscar Sanchez is not very optimistic.
“Just knowing that I will be a starving artist, just dealing with that truth, is the biggest challenge for me,” he said. “Once I get the degree, if I can’t get a job, then what good did $60,000 of debt in student loans do for me?”
Sanchez is not alone.
Ian Owen, an ATEC alumnus who graduated in spring, already had a basic portfolio when he started at UTD as a freshman.
Four years, four months and a degree later, he is struggling to find a job in the design industry, despite having worked on several projects outside of class requirements, Owen said.
“When it came down to the bottom line, there was no one really to review your portfolio,” he said. “We didn’t have classes on how to make a good portfolio. That’s a whole thing in itself. There’s a way to present yourself, and it’s very difficult.”
In a market that is hiring experienced professionals in entry-level positions, jobs for those fresh out of college are hard to come by, Owen said.
While the market is competitive even for students that have a strong portfolio, ATEC students often don’t start thinking about their careers or getting a job until late in their senior year, said Mickey Choate, associate director for Career Services.
By then, it is too late to work on independent projects or build a network with professionals in the industry, and students have to rely on classroom projects for their portfolio, which is not enough, he said.
Typically, students have three-month deadlines for class projects, and they end up filling their portfolio with many small pieces of content that are underwhelming and not professional grade, said Enrique Dryere, co-owner of game development company TripleBTitles, who has reviewed several portfolios as a recruiter.
Instead, students should put their efforts toward building these smaller projects into one really good portfolio piece, he said.
Dryere graduated from the ATEC program with a graduate degree in 2012. His brother Paul also graduated with a bachelor’s from ATEC, and together they launched their first game, “Ring Runner,” straight out of college.
Most ATEC students want to go get their first jobs in some of the big national studios, and that is an unrealistic expectation because there are professionals with 10 or 12 years of industry experience working in those places, Dryere said.
“ATEC is difficult,” said Lisa Garza, director for Career Services. “Unfortunately, what happens sometimes is that students do have it in their mind that ‘I’m going to work at Pixar.’ When they’re not doing that or if they’re not seeing those types of companies or those types of jobs, they don’t feel like there is anything for them.”
When they enter the program, freshmen typically think they want to be in animation. In one class of 80 students, only five did not want to be animators, Owen said.
Contrary to what students think, several students from the program have found relevant positions in business and healthcare, Choate said.
AT&T Foundry, JP Morgan Chase, Cisco Sytems and Texas Instruments are among the companies where ATEC alumni work.
For Owen, the ATEC program seemed too easy and inadequate as preparation for the industry, he said. He had to learn most of his programming and industry skills on his own.
According to Dryere, that is how it should be.
Students in the ATEC program should not harbor the misconception that this is an easy major and that work in the classroom will be enough, he said.
“The program needs to change the way it presents itself,” Dryere said. “Currently a lot of people are going into it as a backup to becoming an accountant or (they’d say,) ‘I didn’t really like a science class, so now I’m going to do ATEC.’ It was more of a holiday thing.
“It’s not. It’s the furthest thing from that possible. It’s something that you should do only if you’re very passionate about it, very decided and you’re willing to spend hours upon hours every day on projects and coursework.”
The course is designed to allow students to learn the fundamentals of the course, but no faculty can possibly teach a student everything there is to learn, Dryere said.
The technology is constantly changing, and a skill that was relevant four years ago might not be useful now, said Dennis Kratz, dean of Arts and Humanities and the director for the program.
“I think one of the strongest facets of the master’s program is that it gives you enough flexibility in the curriculum,” Dryere said. “The projects in those classes have the flexibility that they allow you to work on your own … The program gives you extra motivation.”
Early networking is key to finding a job in the field, Choate said. Students should utilize the industry connections their faculty have and interact with guest speakers from the industry who come to speak to students, he said.
While the game development community is growing in Texas, most of the big networking conferences in the field are still either on the east or the west coast, making it even harder for students to build leads into companies or show their work to potential recruiters, Dryere said.
However, UTD’s ATEC program is working closely to build partnerships with animation companies in the area, Kratz said.
Despite these efforts, the field continues to be very competitive, Choate said. Unlike other majors, ATEC students rarely share internship or job opportunities among themselves for fear of increasing the competition, he said.
“If people have a job they’re happy to talk about it, but if they don’t have a job, everybody is kind of an enemy at that point,” Owen said.
Comet Careers will assign a career consultant to each school starting fall so that students can build personal relationships and find career resources. Students need to come early on in their program, so that Comet Careers can help them, Garza said.
Sanchez and Owen said that they have been unable to find any job openings posted on the Comet Careers website in their field, nor have they seen any ATEC recruiters at the career fairs.
While Owen only encountered three professors that had worked in the industry, Sanchez said many of his professors have used their contacts with professionals to provide students with constructive criticisms on their work. The critiques have helped him and other students improve upon their work and develop an idea of what recruiters are looking for, Sanchez said.
While the animation faculty at UTD has several members with significant industry experience, hiring such people is not easy, Kratz said. Faculty members must have at least a graduate degree in order to meet the university’s hiring policies, he said.
No program can be designed simply to ensure that students get a job out of college, Kratz said. Coursework should train students for work in different arenas and give them the ability to create jobs, he said.
Sometimes, becoming an entrepreneur two years after graduating might be a better option than having a job right out of college that doesn’t take the student further, Kratz said.
“It leads to the larger question of what an education’s about, Kratz said. “It’s to become more skilled, more imaginative, deeper, more able to deal with strangeness and also able to present yourself in a way that someone wants you to work for them.”