Top tech CEOs' advice to grads (and job-seekers of all ages)

More than 1.6 million college students are graduating this spring, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and most are still looking to land their first full-time job. CBS News asked the leaders of three top technology companies what those eager job-seekers can do to distinguish themselves from their peers and break into a highly competitive market.

The CEOs of MakerBot and HUGE, as well as the co-founder of Reddit, agreed that the most important thing newly-minted graduates can do is prove that they are capable of generating ideas and then making them happen.

"We're looking for people who have done things," said Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot. "So even if you're just coming out of school, hopefully you've done something while you were in school that you can take pride in, you haven't just taken tests." He added that it could have been something you did as part of a club, sports team, extracurricular activity or even just an event planned with friends.

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian seconded this advice, taking it a step further. "Let's say you want to do marketing. You could just get the internship at such and such company. Or, why even wait for their permission for that internship? Just get started, right? Find a friend of yours who wants to run a Kickstarter campaign."

Then he advises, take the reigns of the Kickstarter campaign by offering to run the marketing for them or helping raise money. Doing so will prove to a potential employer that you're capable of "having an idea, creating a plan and executing it," he said.

"The number one thing we're looking for is smart people who really want to take risks and push the envelope and really do some of the best work in their careers," says Aaron Shapiro, the CEO of the digital agency HUGE. "If you pick a job that you're really passionate about, then you're going to be successful. That's really the most important thing."

While the career landscape has changed drastically in recent years, there is one piece of advice that Pettis says will never be outdated: write a solid cover letter.

"When we get cover letters that are just, it's clear that it's generic, then those go straight into the garbage," he said. "We look for people that are passionate, engaged, that will be a great fit. And so the first way that we can discover that is in a cover letter."

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reports that the average starting salary for bachelor's degree candidates hired from the class of 2013 was $45,327. Starting salaries within the tech sector were above average, with engineering roles earning eight of the top 10 salaries. At $95,300, petroleum engineers earn the highest average starting salary, according to NACE's Salary Survey 2014. Computer science majors come in second, at $67,300.

NACE's Job Outlook 2014 report found that companies plan to hire 7.8 percent more recent graduates than they did in 2013. About half -- 48.4 percent -- say they will increase college hiring. Pettis and Shapiro say their companies will be amongst those looking for new grads, as they are "absolutely" hiring.

  • Danielle Elliot On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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