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Displaced in droves

The good news: productivity is up. The bad news: productivity is up.

The other day, I gave a talk to a group of career counselors for a state displaced worker program. The program has clients from around the state in every business sector that need help finding work for their former employees. Increasingly of late, these contracts have come from the tech sector, and the counselors need to give thousands of displaced workers advice on how to rejuvenate their IT careers.

The talk came as these issues were at the top of my mind; I was in the middle of preparing our annual IT Careers issue, which you hold in your hands. The day before the talk, I had edited the cover story in this issue on hot markets for tech skills. Even in tough times such as these, our writer–David Southgate–was able to follow the money in this mixed economy and find IT needs in the financial, health care, biotech, and security fields. The day of the talk, I edited Elizabeth Millard’s feature on the growth in government IT jobs. And that same day, I gave some last minute direction to Southgate on his other feature in this issue on how to effectively use job boards in combination with other techniques to land a job.

The talk also came on the heels of news from a variety of sources leading to the simple conclusion that it is really hard to find work in the tech sector these days.

The news includes:

— Even as orders are up, companies are finding that they can do without all the IT staff they had relied on in the go-go ’90s. They’re finding that by boosting IT productivity, they can keep staffs lean into the foreseeable future. I call this the double-edged sword of productivity: It’s generally a good sign for the economy, but it can be a bad sign for employment.

— To cut costs, companies are increasingly shipping their development and help-desk systems overseas, reducing the pool of available jobs in the United States. According to BusinessWeek magazine, in Bangalore, India alone, several top companies are investing millions of dollars in R&D centers to exploit cheaper labor at the expense of U.S. engineering jobs. Examples: Cisco has hired 600 Indian engineers; HP, 1,400; and Oracle, 2,400. Bill Gates’s November trip to India, in which he announced a similar program, underscores the general trend of exporting high-level tech work overseas.

— A large portion of the technology sector is in a wait-and-see mode. Companies don’t want to invest in existing solutions because technologies on the horizon–such as Web services–will likely supplant the current solutions. Besides, there’s no pressing need to invest until these technologies are ready if your competition is also in wait-and-see mode.

These and other factors have lead to a depressed IT jobs sector. Nonetheless, I filled much of the hour with good strategies the counselors could teach their clients to help them get IT jobs. And the lively question-and-answer session that followed my talk filled in the gaps. Here are some excerpts.

The strategy of figuring out what industries are growing and finding work in those industries is nothing new. If you look to the recession-proof businesses during a recession, you’ll fare better. Examples include the health care, health insurance, and pharmaceutical industries. While a growing percentage of our compensation is devoted to health care costs, the industry itself is doing quite well. Few industries are in a better position to invest in IT. And no industry needs more help converting legacy and paper-based systems over to secure digital format, especially with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act compliance coming due in April. So it makes sense to gear your training towards the systems large medical providers use. Similarly, as the pharmaceutical industry enjoys fat profits from its medications, it too is in a good position to invest in IT.

There is no more recession-proof sector than the government. Some estimates say the new Homeland Security Agency alone is set to invest more than $2 billion per year into IT. And every area of federal, state, and local government needs help with their computer security systems. President Bush intends to privatize much of the federal government, so a lot of the federal money will go over to the private sector in the form of consulting companies that specialize in government-related contracts, especially in security. Thus it would be wise to find out what network security systems are likely to be used by government agencies in your area and learn those systems; then sport your skills in front of the leading IT consultants to the various branches of government.

One of the counselors asked me what training would be best for her clients. Most of them are trained in MCSE and are having a hard time even getting an interview. I told her that if I were a network administrator looking to upgrade my skills now, I would focus on either Linux or Cisco certifications. Linux is growing rapidly because of its relatively strong security and low cost, as Nelson King’s column points out in this issue. And Cisco has few rivals in the area of routers and switches needed by companies that hook their systems into the Internet. My Q&A in this issue of Tom Kelly, head of Cisco’s training division, underscores Cisco’s leadership in enabling students to tailor their programs to their schedules and learning preferences, which is a definite plus for those needing to add CCNA or CCNE certifications to other networking certificates. As for developers, I advise them to learn XML and other technologies related to Web services.

A second counselor asked me what I thought the most effective job search strategy is. Here there are no easy answers. Our Job Boards feature clearly shows that if you use job boards, you need to be very proactive in addition to posting the right kind of resume on them (text or Word only). Change them often and monitor the boards daily. But don’t rely solely on the boards. Hiring managers are getting upwards of 1,000 resumes a day and have precious little time to do anything with them. So how do you get your message in front of hiring managers? In a word, targeting. Figure out what companies you want to work for; find an acquaintance or sympathetic person (perhaps you belong to the same fraternal organization) within the company who knows the hiring manager; and use the contact to get an audience with the manager. Networking is still the best way to get hired.

I left the meeting engaged and enthused that perhaps these counselors can take some useful information to their clients. And I hope I have the opportunity to do this kind of thing again soon.

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