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
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.”
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
”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.”