They're on the cusp of insecurity and contentment. They're on the cusp of bitterness and resolve. They're still too close to the fire to forget about how bad it has been, and too close to the light at the end of the tunnel to ignore the coming change.
''From one day to the next, you didn't know if they were going to come in and drop the bomb on you or the guy next to you,'' says an IT professional at an $8 billion company based in the mid-West. ''I guess things are getting a little better. There are more jobs out there now... but I'm nervous. I'm still insecure.''
Job boards are advertising more high-tech jobs today than they were a year ago. IT spending is starting to pick up -- if only slightly. And salaries are no longer on the skids.
And all of those things make a lot of IT workers cautiously optimistic. But the emphasis at this point is more on the cautious side of things. It's only been a few years since widespread downsizing wiped out IT departments across the country. It's only been a short time since the tech bubble burst, leaving systems administrators working as telemarketers, and thousands of programmers out in the cold while their jobs moved overseas.
Industry analysts say the economy is on the cusp of improving. And the tech sector is showing signs of life. But the dark days aren't that far behind us.
The Hudson Employment Index, which measures worker confidence, fell 1.3 points this past December to 103.6, its lowest reading of 2004. Key contributing factors included a drop in worker ratings of personal finances and increased expectations of staff cuts. However, the Index has risen 3.6 points year over year, reflecting an overall improvement in worker outlook compared to December 2003.
The Hudson report also studies four other sectors: accounting, finance, healthcare and manufacturing. The report shows that IT was the least stable of all sectors studied, posting both the highest reading of worker confidence, along with the most dramatic stumbles. Hudson analysts attribute the wild fluctuations to the "volatile and unpredictable" outlook on the job market and employment issues.
The Bad Times
When the technology bubble burst about five years ago now, many of the IT workers who weren't laid off themselves had to endure watching their colleagues hit the unemployment lines. Quickly, a time of great abundance, in both job opportunities and salary, had completely shifted. People had to wrestle with extra workloads in now short-staffed IT departments. They also had to deal with equipment in need of updating, as well as the fact that there were few job openings for them to turn to.
''The entire help desk for our corporation was let go after one merger,'' says the IT professional who requested not to be identified in this story. ''It was like a family. I'd been there 15 years. It's hard to see those people pushed to the wayside or let go... People are just worried, concerned, unsure.''
The IT worker says his original company, which was worth $1.4 billion, merged with another company. People were laid off. Then about six months later, it merged with yet another company. More people were laid off.
For this worker, the time of uncertainty isn't over.
''We're about a year away from our last acquisition, and senior management now is talking about maybe another acquisition,'' says the IT worker, who adds that he's been feeling insecure for about two years now. ''People are still nervous... but it's one of those things that's out of your control.''
A Change in the Tide
But the economic tide is starting to turn, according to analysts, and that should make work and job hunting easier for tech workers.
Sunil Mehta, CEO of NimbleCat, an employment services company based in Fremont, Calif., says he's seen a two- to three-fold increase in the number of IT jobs posted on job boards across the U.S. Mehta also notes that a good chunk of those jobs are popping up in California -- specifically in Silicon Valley, which had taken a huge hit after the dot.com bust.
''My sense is that there's a big difference in the job market,'' says Mehta. ''Some people are getting multiple offers again. Salaries are inching up... And I think people are more hopeful than they were.''
But Mehta says the wounds are too fresh for workers to let go of their misgivings.
''I think security and contentment come from looking around you and feeling very comfortable that your job situation isn't going to change,'' he adds. ''It just hasn't been long enough. We're only a few years off a very tough situation. It's only been six to eight months since the market has turned. It's too soon for people to say, 'Now everything is OK.'''
While most IT workers aren't saying everything is OK, they probably are saying that things are looking better.
Al Williams, a team leader with the emerging technologies group at Penn State in State College, Pa., says he is feeling fairly content in his job. And Williams has been lucky enough to not only stay happily employed at Penn State, but he also has been able to mold his job into one that keeps him engaged and excited.
And for him, that's the key to contentment.
''I think most of us are reasonably secure in our jobs here,'' says Williams. ''You'd always like to do more and you've got to find outlets for that. I've done that by changing what I'm doing on a regular basis throughout my career.'' Williams says he started out in the aircraft industry, and after 10 years there, he moved to the university system and worked as a mainframe systems programmer. From there, he moved to distributed computing before changing direction again and managing labs in classrooms. More recently he started working in the emerging technologies department.
''It keeps things fresh,'' says Williams. ''You get to look at new things and look at things from a different perspective. When you're so focused on one thing, it gets to the point that you don't see what else is going on in the world.''
What seems important today to many IT workers, like Williams, is to be able to stay with one employer, according to John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a high-tech recruiting firm based in Chicago. During the Internet boom of the late '90s, IT workers frequently moved from job to job, seeking out more exciting work and better pay. Today, Challenger says, IT professionals are being more cautious and they want stability in their careers.
''The tech workers felt the change in the economy a little more deeply or harder than other sectors of the economy,'' says Challenger. ''I think they took away a sense of being more cautious about making sure the jobs they take and the companies they work for are stable.
''I think maybe we're at the brink of moving into a new era,'' he adds. ''We're coming out of the doldrums of a technology depression.''