Tech Employment Down, Not Out

There are still bright spots in certain sectors of the tech market.


Information technology specialists have one advantage over people from other disciplines in an economy in which layoffs are common and jobs aren’t: They’re used to it.

The technology sector is more prone to bubbles and busts than most others, for one thing. And even in good times, there’s always a chance you’ll be laid off for being associated with the wrong generation of technology.

In the technology world, there’s always another opportunity coming in over the horizon, often crushing the previous opportunity and ousting the people whose jobs relied on it. In February, IBM and Microsoft, for example, each announced layoffs of more than 5,000 workers, but each also has thousands of open jobs for which they continue to hire. The new jobs are often not in the same technology area as the old jobs, however, a technique IBM executives describe as adapting company resources to match the requirements of the market.

Of course, no technology and no technology skill is ever completely obsolete, no matter how “dead” it’s declared by the next generation. Every new technology builds on and borrows from its predecessors, so skills can migrate.

And few “obsolete” systems never completely disappear. No matter how old or clunky the technology, some company somewhere depends so heavily on it that they’ll pay what it takes to keep it running and keep people on staff who know how to keep the system from dying altogether.

So the basic advice recruiters and career coaches are giving is the same guidance they always give during dips in IT spending or employment: Make sure your skills are current; focus on the ones that can cut costs or increase revenue; and do your research to figure out not only which companies are hiring but which industries are expanding and increasing their reliance on technology.

Medical IT jobs on the rise
The medical industry is automating; modernizing; and updating its slow, complicated systems so quickly that the demand from medical companies for IT help is far above that of manufacturing, for example, according to Dave Willmer, executive director of RH Technology, the Menlo Park, Calif.-based IT division of recruitment giant Robert Half International.

“Overall demand for full-time positions in IT is not as strong as it was six to 12 months ago, that’s true. And companies are looking more to contracting to complete their IT projects to try to manage overall budget and headcount,” Willmer said.

Lindsay Olson, partner and recruiter at Paradigm Staffing of New York, which specializes in technology and marketing/sales/PR, agrees – but she’s still optimistic.

“[Demand for IT jobs ] is down, but we’re seeing a lot more [staffing needs] in the technology sector than in fashion marketing, for example,” said.Olson. “There is still targeted hiring going on out there.”

It’s true that technology hiring is ongoing. Yet the number of full-time IT positions for which companies are actively recruiting has dropped 80 percent compared to 2007, according to a survey conducted in December by the Computing Technology Industry of America (CompTIA).

The survey showed that in 2007, responding companies had an average of four open IT positions for which they were actively recruiting. This year they had only one. CompTIA conducts the survey every other year; the most recent edition, which surveyed 710 companies, came out in February.

“On the other hand, the overall unemployment rate for software engineers is under 2 percent,” Willmer said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s February employment data showed monthly job losses for IT workers that average around 3 percent. That percentage is dwarfed by the sometimes-double-digit drops in employment in other industries, but that’s small comfort to individual job seekers.

The average overall unemployment rate was 8.1 percent i n February, up from 7.6 percent in January and 4.9 percent a year earlier.

And, unlike in some harder-hit specialties, declines in pay for technology jobs flattened out during the fourth quarter of last year, according to the Yoh Index of Technology Wages, which has tracked IT pay scales since 2001.

By the end of the third quarter of 2008, IT salaries had sunk to their lowest levels since 2006, according to Yoh. They dropped another 2.4 percent during October and November. But by the end of the fourth quarter, they had recovered enough to finish out one quarter of one percent higher than they were at the same time in 2007.

That slight recovery may indicate good things for IT salaries during the first half of 2009, according to Yoh, though that trend is still uncertain.

However, this apparent bit of good news conceals a darker truth: Companies trying to save money on IT salaries just laid people off instead of reducing their pay, according to Bill Yoh, president and CEO of the research company.
“The latest data continues to emphasize uncertainty in the marketplace,” he said.

VoIP and security jobs opening up
Still, despite the tetchiness of the economy overall, some IT skills remain hotter than others, especially those connected with revenue generation or cost savings, Willmer said.

Projects focused on virtualization, voice-over-IP systems, and Web-site management or enhancement are going great guns, Willmer said.

“The caveat is that many companies are willing to use contract help to complete those projects, rather than hiring people full time,” he said.

Security – a perennial chart-topper in IT skills surveys – is also in high demand. A 2008 IT skills survey from CompTIA showed three-quarters of companies surveyed in nine countries, including the U.S. identified security, firewalls and data privacy as being the skills that will be most important to their organizations during 2009. Only 57 percent of those organizations said they already had enough of those skills in-house.

“There’s more in corporate technology and business-to-business type services than in consumer,” Olson said. “There is a lot of interest in Web 2.0 tech, social media, digital marketing than in some other areas.”

This is not a great market in which to be looking for a job, Wilmer and Olson agree. There aren’t as many opportunities as usual, and there is a lot of competition for the jobs that are being filled.

If you’re focused in your search and up to date in your skills, though, you’re in a much better position as an IT specialist than people laid off in the rest of the corporate meltdown.

“Stay active, professionally,” Willmer said. “Do volunteer work, training online, whatever you need to do. The last thing you want is to end up competing against someone you were equivalent to six months ago, but that person kept up his skills and you didn’t.”