In once-thriving IT job centers such as Silicon Valley and Seattle, the economic downturn has dragged on so long that the question rising from the lips of unemployed IT professionals has become a persistent mantra: When will employers start hiring again?
The surprising answer is that they already have. Just not in any of the traditional IT epicenters. Instead, as industries such as biotechnology, health care and defense show recession-defying growth, new IT job meccas are springing up in some surprising places better known for things such as country music than coding.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, given the length and depth of the current downturn, increasing numbers of IT professionals are joining other employment-seeking workers in beginning to migrate to these new job centers. In fact, out of 3,000 jobless managers and executives recently surveyed by Chicago-based outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., 16 percent opted for relocation in the third quarter—a 33 percent increase over the numbers doing so in the second quarter.
So, for those IT workers open to uprooting and relocating in order to reboot their stalled careers, the million-dollar question is: Where are the jobs? To answer that, we pored over data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics and tech job board listings. We then researched which industries are doing the best in this economy. Finally, we spoke to hiring managers in the regions that seemed promising. (For more details on how we chose regions to feature, see related story.)
We did it all in an effort to point migrating IT workers in the right direction. The result is the following package of portraits of three regions—New Yorks Capital Region, northern Virginia and Southern California—that are holding their heads above water better than much of the country when it comes to IT job creation.
One hesitates to call any area a “hot spot” in this economy, but at the very least, these are warm spots. And, considering the current, chilly job market, theres a lot to be said for that.
We hope that these portraits, if they dont persuade out-of-work and dissatisfied IT workers to pack up and move, will at least provide useful guidelines of what to look for when considering relocating. (See related story for more pre-U-Haul tips.)
N.Y Capital Region
N.Y Capital Region
New York was a tech center long before the dot-com boom—think IBM, Eastman-Kodak Co., Bausch & Lomb Inc. and Corning Inc.—and that tradition hasnt faltered. As New York State CIO James Dillon likes to point out, the state ranked fourth in the nation in 1999 for attracting venture capital – a total of $2.2 billion—and third for research and development spending by industry, at $14.1 billion.
Three years later, bolstered by state financial support, the growth of tech business—and IT jobs—is strong, particularly in the so-called Capital Region of upstate New York, a seven-county area that encompasses Albany, Troy and other cities. According to BLS figures, the region has added 3,200 nonfarm and private-sector jobs since September, holding its unemployment rate to a low 3.4 percent.
The venture capital flow and government support were key to persuading Clint Ballinger, CEO of biomedical startup Evident Technologies Inc., to open up shop about one and a half months ago in Troy.
“State financial support is a big thing,” Ballinger said. “Also, theres a lot of access to angel investors. Theres economic development people around willing to lend a hand for free—everything from things like help with setting up a Blue Cross policy to free help writing business plans. Theres a lot of support for high-tech companies now. I feel like a celebrity. Everybody likes us.”
That fondness eventually will trickle down to the IT job market. Ballinger expects that Evident—a nanotechnology manufacturing and application company that draws on semiconductor technologies to develop products in the fields of biotechnology, optical switching, computing, telecommunications and energy—will add 200 employees to its Troy facility during the next five years.
Like many of the thriving companies interviewed for this package, Evidents future IT hiring needs will be for bioinformatics skills. Heres a sample application of such skills: One Evident researcher is now combing through key DNA sequences, a computing-intensive project for which hes written his own data mining scripts. Eventually, said Ballinger, those scripts will need to be run on large, parallel processing servers. And thats where hell need some mainstream IT skills. Although bioinformatics often constitutes rarefied skills, in Evidents case, Ballinger would be happy to take on IT workers with straight computer science degrees whove done work with high-speed parallel computing.
“One of these days, hopefully soon, well need horsepower around the high-speed data mining and processing around the human genome to help [us] figure out sequences to determine West Nile [virus], smallpox, TB, things like that,” Ballinger said.
Beyond that, Evident, like most new companies, will need help getting networked. As it is, the young company is already what Ballinger calls a “far-flung empire,” with three labs—in Watervliet, N.Y.; Siena College, in Loudonville, N.Y.; and Troy—that need to be hooked together.
In exchange for networking help, Evident is providing free office space to two IT contractors, who are in the process of starting up a network administration company. Eventually, of course, the company will take on in-house IT workers. “Well need in-house people to help with software management, all the other stuff,” said Ballinger.
Where will Evident find the tech skills it will need? The company will likely turn to upstate New Yorks top-notch tech education institutions, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the State University of New York at Albany and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Those institutions are also part of why Sematech—a consortium of 12 semiconductor companies from seven countries now housed in Austin, Texas—soon will be opening its newest program in Albany, once the contract has been signed, probably by years end, according to a Sematech spokeswoman.
Experts say the potential of job growth from Sematechs new program cant be overestimated. Dillon, the state CIO, has been eyeballing Sematechs current Austin location to get an idea of what to anticipate in his own backyard.
“Early on, its going to be 25 research scientists and seven support staff,” said Dillon, in Albany. “That will grow to 500 in a year or two. In Austin, at a later date, you got economic development and spinoff companies growing from the original Sematech effort. It took a period of years, but the [current] employment figures are in the 100,000-plus range in the high-tech arena in Austin. It turned from a place governed by government and education into a high-tech hub. We strongly believe the same growth can happen here.”
Edward Moran, director of Deloitte & Touche LLPs Technology, Media & Telecommunications Groups Tri-State Product Innovation Practice, in New York City, said the biggest challenge will be training potential employees fast enough.
IBM has already put substantial funding into a new nanotechnology center at SUNY Albany, but the people qualified to run the million-dollar equipment needed there just arent around yet. “Machines are sitting idle,” said Moran, who is also director in charge of the consultancys New York Fast 50 annual regional list of fast- growing companies. “Where are the technicians? I hear, We have one, and he or she is at lunch. Thats an opportunity for job growth. People with a technical bent should strike out for Albany and be part of that.”
For readers yearning for a New York job, check out www.hightechNY.com, where one of more than 4,300 job openings might satisfy.
In the wake of terrorist attacks and the looming specter of war, business is surging for defense contractors. Many of these contractors are clustered around Washingtons Beltway and within northern Virginia—a region that, when combined with Maryland and West Virginia, has seen the lowest jobless rate in the nation for four consecutive months when looking at the 51 metropolitan areas tracked by the BLS that have a 1990 census population of 1 million or more. The unemployment rate stood at 3.5 percent as of Oct. 30.
Susan Baker, vice president of Workforce Development for the Northern Virginia Technology Council, in Herndon, said the council estimates a current demand for some 4,000 to 5,000 IT workers as jobs go unfilled in the region. These openings are primarily with government contractors such as SAIC, CACI International Inc. and BAE Systems plc., Baker said.
It may be surprising to contemplate so many IT jobs going unfilled in this economic climate. But when they relate to the defense industry, such shortfall claims might be believable, especially when you consider the difficulty employers have getting the security clearances needed for their employees to work on most defense projects. Depending on the level of security clearance in question, background checks can take from 12 to 18 months. The clearance is sponsored by the hiring company, which cannot put IT employees to work until they are cleared.
Clearances last five years. If youve got one, you can practically name your starting salary. “In this market, anyone who has a clearance can interview all over town and get multiple offers,” Baker said. “Keeping in mind that it takes [up to] $25,000 to get them cleared, you see a lot of that put into their salaries [if candidates are already cleared].”
SAICs director of employment, Devette Lancon, in McLean, Va., backed up Bakers assertions. SAIC currently has more than 3,000 IT openings companywide. About half of the companys work is government-related, and one-third of that work requires a clearance. High-level security clearances usually result in salary premiums of 5 to 10 percent, Lancon said.
The toughest positions for SAIC to fill are those that require extensive IT backgrounds, Lancon said. That includes not just coding and software development skills but also large-scale system implementation and people management experience. The most-sought-after people right now are program or project managers whove been responsible for profit and loss and systems integration—with a high-level security clearance, of course.
Defense is not the regions only sector thats thriving. The biomedical sector, as with the other regions profiled in this report, is poised to churn out what might be a substantial number of tech jobs in the future. Eli Lilly and Co., for one, is opening up a headquarters site in Prince William County in northern Virginia. Even more exciting, though, is a 281-acre campus for biomedical research that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute plans to open by the end of 2005 or early 2006.
Avis Mehan, a spokeswoman for Howard Hughes Medical, in Chevy Chase, Md., said the new campus—the Janelia Farm Research Campus—will open with a small cadre of some 24 scientists working in biological research. But Baker, of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, is optimistic about the campuss potential for generating IT jobs.
“With such a large campus, I cant imagine thered be less than 1,000 employees,” she said.
Whatever the number of biomedical/biotech jobs the future might bring, the region now presents a strong market for IT jobs. And for those IT people contemplating working for a defense contractor in the area, SAICs Lancon had this added job benefit to offer: “Always at the foundation of everything we do … is whats best for our country,” she said. “Its appealing to come to the region because [IT people are] doing work in support of initiatives at the White House or the Pentagon. You can really see the fruits of your labors.”
Southern California—specifically the 28,000-square-mile, three-county so-called Inland Empire that lies east of Los Angeles—is the golden child when it comes to job creation. The Riverside-San Bernardino region has created the most jobs in the country this year to date: 29,700 in July and 26,000 in August, according to the BLS.
Whats going on that makes the region so much more robust than much of the rest of the country, particularly its ailing neighbor to the north, Silicon Valley? According to Rohit Shukla, founder, president and CEO of Larta, a think tank for the regions technology businesses formerly known as the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance, part of the explanation for the regions health lies in the fact that its become a major center for distribution.
Land is available and affordable, making it “one of the last places” where businesses can put up facilities for trucking, railheads, storage and logistics, Shukla said. And the good news for job seekers is that logistics is highly automated and requires a specialized set of IT skills, he said.
But perhaps an even greater contributor to the regions economic health is its diverse industry base. In addition to distribution and manufacturing companies, the area is home to an array of growing biomedical companies, including Baxter International Inc. and Becton, Dickinson and Co., as well as medical device companies such as Guidant Corp.
Why do biomedical companies keep coming up as drivers of economic growth—and IT jobs—in healthy regions? James Miller, a contractor who runs IS hiring services for Guidant, has a scenario that helps to explain why health care spending grows, even in a down economy: Your husband or wife suffers a cardiac incident. Do you finish building the deck on the house, or do you buy a pacemaker?
“Its one of the few industries I consider insulated from economic downturn,” said Miller, in St. Paul, Minn.
Guidant, the largest employer in Temecula, Calif., 60 miles northeast of San Diego, has a strong culture of promoting from within. Guidant has hired between 70 and 80 tech workers nationwide this year to date, and 50 percent of the openings Miller filled were from within the company. That still leaves 35 to 40 IT jobs open to external sourcing. Miller usually turns to Web search engines, Guidants Web site, local staffing companies and internal referrals to fill these openings externally.
Two areas of IT growth for the company are EAI (enterprise application integration) and data warehousing. Guidant has been seeking out people with skills in what Miller calls “canned solutions”—packaged systems, such as MQSeries in the world of EAI or Siebel Systems Inc. in the customer relationship management realm, that Guidant brings in-house and customizes.
Of late, the need for such skills has kept Miller mired in candidate screenings. Hes not finding it easier to source good candidates because of the saturated candidate pool. Quite the contrary. The average length of time IT openings remain unfilled at Guidant—between 30 and 60 days—has been unchanged since the Internet bubble burst and unemployed ranks around the country swelled.
“There are more people on the street, but that just means there are more people to screen to find the right people,” Miller said. “I call it an I can do it marketplace versus an Ive done it marketplace.”
Contrary to whats said about many biomedical/biotech jobs, Guidant doesnt insist on industry experience in its IT hires, although experience working in a regulated environment always gets the attention of recruiters at such businesses.
“Its a bonus if somebody understands documentation and the methodological approach to systems development,” Miller said. “If you worked in a regulated environment, we know youve been in a position where documentation is everything. After all, [a business such as Guidant] has to stay auditable by the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration].”
If the idea of seeking work at a Southern California company like Guidant appeals, bear in mind that this region isnt much like Seattle or San Francisco—its got a lot more industrial grit than such refined tech centers. But, said Lartas Shukla, as IT becomes more central to just about every industry, the Inland Empire is typical of the kind of place thats going to become the next IT job center.
“The last [technology] wave was marked by incredible cuteness and an obsession with small, hip little towns that had universities at their centers and coffee shops in their souls,” Shukla said. “Its not their time anymore. Its time for the dirty, messy, diversified, broad economies of the U.S. to absorb this [IT] stuff and make it work.”
IT Careers Managing Editor Lisa Vaas is at [email protected]