Look at any list of America's most in-demand employers from the past decade and you'll find it's dotted with big tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. This prominence, coupled with these firm's legendary perks and generous pay, might lead you to believe the best and brightest tech talent are knocking down the door to work there.

But according to a handful of fascinating recent reports, the appeal of working at big tech companies is actually on the wane. 

The techlash comes to college campuses 

A parade of ethics scandals, from Facebook's disinformation problem to Google's troubles with sexual harassment and Chinese censorship, combined with younger generations' commitment to working for companies that align with their values, has made going to work for big tech something of an embarrassment at many of America's elite universities, Emma Goldberg writes in the New York Times.  

College seniors and recent graduates looking for jobs that are both principled and high-paying are doing so in a world that has soured on Big Tech. The positive perceptions of Google, Facebook and other large tech firms are crumbling.

Many students still see employment in tech as a ticket to prosperity, but for job seekers who can afford to be choosy, there is a growing sentiment that Silicon Valley's most lucrative positions aren't worth the ethical quandaries.

"Working at Google or Facebook seemed like the coolest thing ever my freshman year, because you'd get paid a ton of money but it was socially responsible," reports one senior Goldberg interviews. Now, "there's more hesitation about the moral qualities of these jobs. It's like how people look at Wall Street."

Another grad, this one from Stanford, relates that when fellow students announce they're going to work for the likes of Facebook, there is "an awkward gap where they feel like they have to justify themselves."

Working on Wall Street, of course, hardly makes you a pariah, nor are financial firms unable to attract smart young people. But tech companies once enjoyed rock star-like appeal. To find themselves suddenly consigned to the same uncool category as the amoral (at best) finance industry is a big come down. 

And Goldberg has numbers to back up this reputational slide. Pew research shows that the percentage of Americans who believe tech companies have a positive impact has fallen from 71 percent just five years ago to 50 percent in 2019. A former recruiter for Facebook revealed the acceptance rates for job offers is down around 40 percent. Still, Google got 3.3 million job applications in 2019, an 18 percent increase over the previous year.

Nor is Goldberg the only reporter digging into the story. April Glaser wrote a deep dive into anti-big tech activism at Stanford for Slate last summer. She describes how various groups are warning classmates about the ethical lapses of potential employers, including handing out leaflets at career fairs. Others are nudging computer science grads toward more ethical gigs at nonprofits. 

A headache for big tech, an opportunity for others

For big tech, all this is definitely a headache (and possibly a wakeup call). For smaller companies without the ethical entanglements of the industry's biggest players, it's an opportunity to win exceptional talent at slighting less eye-watering cost by framing your work as a force for good. Finally, for tech-savvy employees, the so-called techlash may represent a dawning realization of their own power. 

"Tech companies can hire new cafeteria workers and gig economy drivers, but talented software engineers, security researchers, and mathematicians are in short supply," Boing Boing points out. "They have incredible leverage over the Big Tech companies, and, as they start to build solidarity with their users and more easily replaced co-workers, they have it within their power to bring Big Tech to its knees." 

How big a phenomenon do you think the techlash really is? 

Clarification: A previous version of this column did not mention that the number of job applications Google received increased between 2018 and 2019. 

Published on: Jan 22, 2020
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