IT Recovery: Real or Just a Mirage?

Are the ITAA, Janco reports of an uptick in IT job market for real?

Ex-IBM infrastructure engineer George Perkins, laid off and out of work for 14 months, finally got an interview late last month. The interview not only ended a long, frustrating dry spell for the 20-year IT veteran; it also led to a job as supervisor of the state of Wisconsins Department of Transportations Bureau of Automation Services.

A study from the Information Technology Association of America last month reported "continued stabilization" in the IT work force, with hiring edging out firing. And earlier this month, a salary survey from Janco Associates Inc., in Park City, Utah, was even more ebullient, citing IT salaries that have stopped falling and declaring, "Recession Slows—It Looks Like The Worst Is OVER. Good Times May Be Around The Corner!!!"

Can it be true? Is the fountain of IT hiring beginning to flow again, after 18 to 24 months of being bone-dry? Or is it all just a mirage?

Yes and no. ITAA President Harris Miller told eWEEK that the optimism cited in the organizations report last month was based on hiring managers third-quarter impressions. And in the fourth quarter, there was a "pulling back on optimism," said Miller, in Arlington, Va. Meanwhile, many long-unemployed IT workers report their phones are still as silent as an unplugged PC, with no interviews or job offers coming in.

On the plus side, however, IT recruiters confirm theres a slow, steady recovery taking place. Recruiters in the San Francisco and Washington offices of Robert Half International Inc. said theyve seen an uptick in IT people placed into positions and clients unfreezing IT openings during the last quarter. In short, they said, theres what can be called a minirecovery taking place in IT hiring. Its not being fueled by anything as grandiose as Y2K remediation or dot-com delirium. Rather, experts say, the drought is being eased modestly by companies that simply cant avoid upgrading their systems and churning out products if they want to stay alive. And for that, they need more IT talent.

Whos getting hired? Jeff Markham, a recruiter for Robert Half Technology in San Francisco, said hes seen a marked increase in quality assurance and software developer listings within software vendors, with about five of his clients actively recruiting. The software companies are staffing up because "they need to get product out the door" in the next three to five months, Markham said.

Other IT skills for which enterprises are looking include database developers, particularly in health care and financial services and particularly Oracle Corp. database administrators. Data security is also a "huge one" when it comes to job openings, Markham said.

Network security is fueling the minirecovery in Washington as well. Chris Vennitti, another Robert Half Technology recruiter, said government contract spending around security has been on the rise for a few months.

Indeed, the skills and certifications that are hot now are a harbinger of what recovering companies will be shopping for in the coming months, experts say. And security is at the top of the list. Demand and pay are rising for holders of management-oriented security certifications such as the CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) from the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium Inc. As of the fourth quarter of last year, professionals with CISSP on their résumés saw their premium pay increase 38 percent over year-ago figures, according to Foote Partners LLCs recently released 2002 Annual Skills & Certifications Pay Trends report. Another security certification, the Global Information Assurance Certification from The SANS Institute, is also becoming increasingly prized by hiring managers, according to the Foote Partners study.

Other skills that will be hot, according to David Foote, president and chief research officer of Foote Partners, in New Canaan, Conn., will be those related to voice over IP, project management, Wireless Markup Language, DB2, VoiceXML and SAP AGs SAP ABAP (Advanced Business Application Programming) language.

To those IT workers who are still crawling through the desert of unemployment, however, even this talk of a mild recovery may seem like a shimmering illusion. The newly hired Perkins, who found himself out of work when IBM shut down its Eau Claire, Wis., facility in 2001, knows how desolate such workers feel. Although Perkins had loads of IT experience and certifications—including Microsoft Corp.s Microsoft Certified Engineer and Cisco Systems Inc.s Cisco Certified Network Associate and Cisco Certified Design Professional—in the time he was unemployed, he secured only about six interviews for "real" jobs and about five at consultancies that were "just fishing," said Perkins, in Madison, Wis.

In fact, even his eventual success in landing a job was something of a fluke. When the Wisconsin governorship changed hands this month, long-frozen IT positions thawed temporarily. Perkins got one.

In the end, Perkins said, he got more than just another job from the whole experience; he got an appreciation for what its like to be unemployed. And he has these words of encouragement for those whom the minirecovery hasnt reached yet: Its not your fault.

"Id encourage people whove never been in these shoes to consider that it isnt our fault," Perkins said. "Its circumstances beyond our control."

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