Intel’s Un-Signing Bonus

In the not too distant past, the occurrence of sky-high signing bonuses thrown at newly minted college graduates was evidence of the runaway demand for tech workers. As evidence, then, of how drastically and how quickly the narrative of the “new economy” changed, consider the emergence of the un-signing bonus.

The innovator in this case is no less celebrated a company than Intel, which will apparently offer at least some of its recent job recruits a decent chunk of change if they will pledge not to show up for work after all. (Credit for unearthing this “reverse hiring bonus” goes to the Arizona Republic, which relied on a “company e-mail” that the paper “obtained.” An Intel spokesperson confirmed the plan and helped me with some of the details below.) So how did this peculiar new feature of the after-boomer landscape come about?

Some context: In early March the chip-maker, in the process of announcing that it expected first-quarter revenue to come in below previous expectations, noted that it planned to “reduce headcount by approximately 5,000 people over the next 9 months predominantly through attrition.” Pretty routine stuff.

This announcement happened to come at one of the stock market’s most panicky moments, when Internet visionaries were all complaining  about a lack of “visibility” regarding the economy in general and the tech business in particular. But of course the real visibility crisis was last year—when the picture of just how grimly 2001 would start was apparently invisible to all. Even Intel.

According to a helpful acquaintance at CollegeHire (“the premiere college talent agency for the high-tech job market”), the job-offer season for college students headed into the tech business is well under way six months or more before graduation. Intel signs up a reported 2,000 or so fresh recruits every year and no doubt had made a good number of offers with June 2001 start dates even before New Year’s.

Then the visibility crisis came sharply into focus. And with it came headcount-reduction targets at a slew of companies. At Intel, managers of various divisions are being given the option of reducing the number of heads scheduled to arrive in June (although the scheme is not limited to college recruits, and of course Intel is using various other reduction strategies as well, such as attrition). Specifics will vary, but a typical scenario is that an erstwhile recruit might get to keep his or her signing bonus, plus a few months’ salary.

All of this is just being hashed out at Intel, so it’s far too soon to have a sense of how many prospective Intelers will bite. (If you or someone you know has occasion to wrestle with this dilemma, I’d be interested in hearing about it.) Those who turn down the un-signing bonus may still get the job they’d imagined, or perhaps a different one. In any case, Intel is spinning this, with some justification, as a humane alternative to simply rescinding offers, not to mention an attempt to avoid actual pink-slipping as much as possible.

More intriguing than the implications for Intel are the implications for engineering and other tech-focused grads, whose college careers got underway at a time of dizzying optimism for the profession. For the most sought-after, the un-signing bonus might seem like an echo of the free-money scores of the recent past—a lump of extra cash to be pocketed on the way to accepting some other gig (or perhaps blown on pricey martinis at trendy pink-slip parties). For others, it might seem safer to show up at Intel in June anyway and hope for the best, since the company seems a bit more upbeat about the second half of 2001. Perhaps this is just an odd detour on the road back to a “normal” tech job market—of course, after the headiness of the recent past, it’s anybody guess what “normal” will end up looking like.