Careers in Crisis: Left Behind by the IT Recovery

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Layoffs have dropped off. Headlines talk about job growth and expansion. IT budgets are growing again, even if ever so slightly.

Most of the signs point to an IT industry in recovery -- an economic sigh of relief after several years when pink slips replaced stock options, and IT professionals networked in unemployment lines and gladly accepted a job for half their previous pay... just to have a job again.

After purging itself of an overabundance of dot-com enthusiasm and battling a recession, the industry, analysts say, is back on its feet. Slowly but surely, companies are planning on upgrading their equipment and they're bringing on more tech workers to handle the migration, navigate their networks and plan a new wave of projects.

The worst, according to industry watchers, is over.

But it doesn't feel that way to the crowds of IT professionals who still spend their days combing online job sites, calling contacts they met once at a conference two years ago and worrying their skills are growing more and more moldy as every unemployed day goes by.

For those who are still searching for work, the 'recovery' doesn't feel quite so real.

''I don't feel the recovery,'' says Barkai, a 49-year-old woman and long-time IT professional living in Livingston, N.J. (Barkai -- her last name -- asked that her full name not be used in this article.) I have been looking for work for four and a half years... I have been tempted to become a totally discouraged person... You see the people who have just stopped looking. I was almost one of those people and, at times, I was. But I keep going at it again and again.''

Barkai has been in the IT industry for nearly 30 years. Trained in computer science by the Israeli army, she has worked in the U.S. for nine years and is a permanent resident. Initially a programmer, she has been working in project governance, focusing on quality assurance and better practices.

She says she resigned from a job she had with a bank because her husband's job was forcing them to move. Her resignation came close to Sept. 11, 2001 when the New York/New Jersey area was reeling from the terrorist attacks and the IT industry already was fast into a tailspin.

And now that the sector is in recovery, Barkai has been out of work for more than four years, creating a wide time gap in her resume and keeping her away from some of the latest technology and practices.

''You're never allowed to have a gap [in your resume], justified as it may be,'' says Barkai, who says her husband now is the only income provider and her son just started going to college. ''It takes you a while to get back to that. Maybe you're rusty. Maybe there are new things on the market you haven't worked with. [Employers] are so sure that they have somebody else who doesn't need teaching or training.''

Dueling Statistics

And there are a lot of IT professionals, whether they're programmers, database administrators or systems analysts, who are pounding the pavement and looking for work today. One high-tech job opening at a good company most likely will generate a flood of resumes and applications. But the number of those job openings is on the rise.

Scot Melland, president and CEO of New York-based Dice, Inc., an online recruiting service for IT professionals, says the number of positions posted on the Dice site has increased from July of 2003 to July of this year by 180 percent. That's a jump from 25,000 postings to 70,000.

He also notes that unemployment in IT professionals overall is at 3.7 percent, much below the overall national average of 5.1 percent. ''It's the lowest it's been for IT since 2001,'' says Melland. ''That's a pretty strong data point that says across the country things are pretty good.''

But while these stats all show improvements in the high-tech job market, they also don't show the whole story, according to Steve Hipple, an economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hipple says that while job postings have increased, employment still isn't back to the where it was in 1999 or 2000. Based on the bureau's monthly survey, computer programmers, for instance, show an unemployment level of 5.8 percent today, compared to 2.0 percent in 2000. So while many more people are working compared to a few years ago, many who were working in the field five years ago are still job hunting, or have turned to other careers.

''According to figures from prior to the recession, employment in these fields hasn't appeared to recover,'' says Hipple. ''Just look at the data from 2000 to 2004. We have seen employment decline in high-tech occupations. About one in five jobs has been lost in many of those occupations. One in five computer scientists and analysts. One in four programmers has been lost since 2000.''

Family and Career Derailed

Michael Lawson, a 35-year-old IT professional in Montgomery, Ill., is one of those people struggling to find work.

Laid off last September from a company he'd spent 13 years with, Lawson figures he has sent out at least 150 job applications, which have garnered him only three telephone interviews and two face-to-face sit downs. Married with two children (one of whom is handicapped), Lawson works temp jobs, dips into his retirement fund and now brings home about 30 percent of the income he had a year ago.

Without health insurance for his entire family, Lawson says he worries that something as minor as a broken bone could derail their family finances. ''Every time I leave the house in this car, I risk everything,'' he adds. ''If I get into a car accident, I might as well call a bankruptcy lawyer because I have no coverage. If I fall and break my leg, it's over.''

But Lawson continues his job search, hoping to get a foot in the door at some company by agreeing to work the help desk or even work part time.

''I can't afford to feel discouraged,'' says Lawson, who doesn't have a computer science or engineering degree but learned the IT ropes on the job, working his way up from customer service to a LAN analyst who was responsible for second-level desktop support, 200 servers nationwide and data backup and recovery. ''I can't say I never have bouts of 'what's going to happen tomorrow'. But I have to get up every morning and do my job searches online and read the newspaper and stay current on new technology. When you've been out of work for a year, that stuff goes by you really fast.

''There's somebody out there who still respects 13 years of dedication to a company and six years of IT experience,'' he adds. ''There has to be. Somebody has got to be looking for someone who is going to stick around for a while.''

Advice for Job Hunters

Dice's Melland says Lawson's lack of a college degree, along with his geographical area, may be slowing down his job search.

Hiring definitely is picking up, but it's not picking up all over, according to Melland. He says areas like Washington D.C., Boston and Atlanta are booming. But areas in the center of the country and outside city limits are still slow to pick up.

''It sounds like a pretty good background,'' Melland says. ''People with formal degrees always do better though, as well as people with certifications... Certifications will often not guarantee you a job, but they're used as a filter. Not having those certifications [or degrees] on your resume, means you might not be included in a slate of interviews.''

Barkai says she realizes that keeping current with classes is important, but taking them is not always so easy.

''I've tried to take workshops,'' she says. ''Most of the real training is in classes, but the prices for that are usually on the corporate level. I don't have the money to spend $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000 on that. And there are so many different certifications to get, it's like shooting in the dark.''

But Melland says continued training just may be exactly what Barkai needs.

''When you've been out for a while, it can be a negative to recruiters,'' he adds. ''They wonder why. It's human nature... It raises a question mark as to why you're in transition. I'd recommend she get over to a local community college and pick up a project management certification. Demonstrate that you're current in your skill.''

Melland says he expects the recovery to continue to pick up speed so he encourages people to keep looking. But for those out of work, a long-term job hunt can be a draining ordeal.

''It can drive a person crazy,'' says Barkai. ''There are times when you are looking for a job and you become a slave to the Internet and email. You have to break away from it and have time for a normal life and normal things. You have to find a balance because there's so much frustration with nothing happening.''

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