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The job of finding a job

There is anecdotal evidence that jobs are returning to the tech sector. But how are people finding work?

After returning home in August from a two-year hitch in the Peace Corps, Dave Blake had little optimism that he’d be able to resume his systems administrator career where it left off in 2002. While he was in Eastern Europe, he’d heard nothing but bad things about the U.S. job market, especially in the tech sector. So when he started sending out résumés, answering want ads, and haunting job boards upon his return, he expected to encounter a lot of indifference and not much else.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the unemployment office: He got a job with a nonprofit organization after being home less than a month. It was nothing special, but it paid OK and it was in his field. And craziest of all, it resulted from a want ad in the Sunday paper. “They told me they got a good response to the ad, but not what they expected,” Blake said. “I’m still looking, because I think I can do better. But until something better comes along, this isn’t bad.”

Even though it’s only anecdotal, evidence is evidence: Jobs are returning to the tech industry. The United States gained a net total of 213,639 IT jobs between the first quarter of 2003 and the first quarter of 2004, according to the Information Technology Association of America. Like Dave, not everyone is getting the plum gig they’ve been dreaming of, but at least they’re getting something–which isn’t a claim that could be made two years ago.

That net job figure is nice, but you can bet there’s a good handful of candidates gunning for each of those jobs. So want-ad luck of the draw aside, how are people finding work?

Networking

As much as we introverted Type-Bs hate to do it, glad-handing and cultivating connections is a never-ending source of potential employment. The more confident and persistent you are about planting a bug in people’s ears, the better your chances.

“This is still one of the best ways to find a job: Have a strong network,” Kevin Hudson, vice president of Product Management Technology for Tampa, Fla.-based Kforce Inc. “Who do you know? Who do they know? Can they recommend you to a hiring manager or company? I am much more inclined to call someone back or even hire them if someone I respect put us in touch.”

One of many rules of thumb when it comes to networking is, don’t count anyone out. Think your uncle Earl doesn’t know anyone who’s hiring? You won’t know until you ask him, will you? Also, seek out and attend any and all social and professional events in your field, make it easy for people to get in touch (keep business cards in your purse or wallet), and follow up on any promising meeting, no matter how limited its potential seems.

Job boards

After trawling through the contents of some online job boards, you might find yourself reluctant to join the mob of applicants who are hounding every available job. But in the words of the great philosopher Wayne Gretzky, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. Job boards can bring results if used cannily.

“The days of the individual line manager calling his buddy to find a COBOL programmer are gone,” says Lamont Meeks, Midwest recruiting director for Houston-based COMSYS Information Technology Services. “Most IT jobs are advertised on the Web through job boards, whether proprietary or commercial. Or, sometimes, they’re found via a network of consulting firms that have been asked to staff positions for their client base.”

“For tech jobs paying under the $100,000 level, I’d definitely try job boards,” agrees Marc Lewis, president, North America, for Stamford, Conn.-based Morgan Howard Worldwide.

There are oodles of IT online job boards (see RealRates.com for a nice-sized list), and everyone seems to prefer a different one. So do some shopping around, and start posting your résumé to the online outlets that look most promising–you don’t have anything to lose but your free-agent status.

As it is for other tech job-related services, Dice.com is highly regarded for its search function, which can narrow down by location the 50,000 or so jobs it usually has posted.

Job fairs

Yes, they’re forced, corny, overcrowded meat markets. But job fairs can also be lucrative if you play them right. “Companies don’t typically invest in attending job fairs if they aren’t actively recruiting,” says Hudson. “But there is still no better way to find out about a company that you know is hiring or that you’re interested in. Plus, they get to meet you.”

Keep in mind, however, that general-profession job fairs are usually a huge haystack with very few needles. If you’re going to go, make sure the one you’ve got your eye on is at least somewhat geared toward your profession–or, if it isn’t, scan the list of exhibitors to see if any attractive potential employers will be in attendance.

Job fairs in your area are usually heavily advertised, but for a national schedule, sites such as JobExpo.com have explicit details about upcoming fairs, down to exhibitor lists and driving directions.

Agencies and recruiters

Staffing services and agencies are no longer for serial temps and big-dollar earners only. Most metro areas now have at least one agency devoted to matching up tech employers with job seekers.

A typical example is Seattle-based CSR Tech Services, which maintains a database of 20,000 workers in every imaginable area of high-tech who can be counted on when the right employer comes a-calling with a temporary or long-term vacancy. Best of all, as with almost all staffing services, the employer pays all associated costs. Odds are good that a similar agency resides near you, even if its focus isn’t on IT.

“Agency recruiters know their clients, they know the industry and they know how to polish up your résumé and get it in front of the companies who are hiring,” says Hudson. “To maximize their effectiveness, however, you should stick with just one firm instead of trying to cast a broader net by working with multiple agencies. The fastest way to make a recruiter not want to help you is to tell them you’re working with four or five different firms.”

Keep looking

The brewing baby-boomer labor shortage that’s often touted seems to be a myth in the tech world–IT is still a young person’s game in many ways, and the mass exodus of retirees won’t come for a while yet. That means tech job seekers have to be more creative than the average bear.

The main thing is to use the job-seeking method that feels right for you. Perhaps the most potent job-seeking recipe is a custom mixture of the above methods, plus a few secret tricks of your own.

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