Is It Time to Move On?

Tired of industry downturn, some IT professionals consider job Plan B.

Tim ONeal didnt expect the end of his 30-year IT career to be signaled by a glossy, full-page advertisement. But earlier this year, when ONeal saw a Sun Microsystems Inc. ad poking fun at IBM for using Sun equipment in-house, he knew it was the beginning of the end. Within weeks, he said, ONeals Unix development group—which had supported Sun gear at IBM—was being dismantled, and the layoffs started.

Thats when he turned to the law—not to sue but for a new career. ONeal, like many IT professionals in the midst of the economic downturn in high technology, has decided to move on, leaving his coding days behind and focusing the rest of his working years on a different field. With a degree in patent law from Suffolk University, in Boston, ONeal plans to use his three decades in computing to guide high-tech innovators through the patent process.

A drastic change? Perhaps. Uncommon? Not really. From newly minted computer science graduates who are rethinking their career path in the face of dwindling job offers to midlife IT pros tired of shuffling between jobs in a hurting field, increasing numbers of techies are either contemplating or making the big break. Some choose careers that have an obvious link to IT, such as selling high-tech products; others are setting out on a different path, such as being a lawyer, career counselor or teacher. Either way, say experts, many skills honed in the IT world are useful outside it.

Its no secret that times have been tough—and jobs increasingly scarce—in IT. Research company Meta Group Inc. recently reported that 500,000 IT jobs disappeared last year alone. The study also found that IT employee turnover rates have risen at most companies.

"These higher-than-expected turnover rates, in this context of economic slowdown or recession, are partly explained by an exodus of workers from IT to other areas," said the author of the study, Howard Rubin, an analyst at Meta, in Stamford, Conn. According to the report, 62 percent of those surveyed have considered leaving IT due to the job market.

But where to jump? Carol Covin, author of such books as "Best Computer Jobs in America: Twenty Minutes from Home," offers these possibilities: teaching computer science at the college or graduate level; bioinformatics, which is IT used by biotech and other life sciences companies; patent law; and genome research. These fields take advantage of traditional strengths found in IT workers, including analytical skills, technical orientation and "an interest in puzzling out new things," said Covin, in Bristow, Va.

Mike Sweeny, managing director of talent acquisition at T. Williams Consulting Inc., a headhunting organization in Collegeville, Pa., has seen former hands-on techies find a comfortable new niche as sales engineers, working as liaisons between traditional salespeople and customers to supply the technical pieces of sales pitches. "Of course, this works best for those who have a little bit of a sales personality," Sweeny said. "But, along with product manager, sales engineer can be a really good fit."