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After chugging along through the late 1990s, the job market came to a screeching halt last year, throwing many people off. For at least the first half of 2002, those bruised and battered workers will have a hard time climbing back on board the job train.

Take the skilled IT worker who left a clothing retailer two years ago to set up shop as an IT consultant.

“He had worked for a competitor before going off on his own but showed up at our door recently saying [that] if we would pick up expenses, he’d work for free,” recalls Jon Dell’Antonia, vice-president of MIS at OshKosh B’Gosh Inc. in Oshkosh, Wis. “Talk about a sign of the times.”

And the times certainly are a-changing. With the nation and much of the world in a major recession, 2002 looks to be a time defined by more layoffs, including cuts in IT. If you’re among the ranks of the unemployed, finding a new job will continue to be a major challenge.

Forget seeing a turnaround soon. Rather than job growth or even job stability, fewer IT jobs will be available, employment experts believe, as many companies reduce their IT departments even further through more layoffs or attrition.

Granted, the picture won’t be entirely dismal. There will be a premium on IT security professionals, for example. But employers are putting job seekers on notice: In these tight times, they expect real bang for their buck. The pressure will really be on IT employees to improve performance. And while you keep one eye on your job, network with others in the industry and stay on the lookout for IT jobs in related industries, should a layoff occur.

When the dot-coms exploded in 1999, many people left stable IT jobs. “And where are they today?” Dell’Antonia muses. “Some are wishing they were back, but a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to go back.”

Stable Salaries

The recession has obviously hurt the IT job market, Dell’Antonia says, but the impact on IT jobs in the apparel business, specifically, is a “mixed bag.” OshKosh expects to do OK in 2002, he says, partly because the clothier’s business is half retail and half wholesale.

“In the third quarter of 2001, we were having a really good year,” Dell’Antonia notes.

Fortunately, IT professionals can look forward to retaining their salary levels in 2002: Salaries for most job titles in IT will increase by approximately 4 per cent on average, according to surveys and top-level IT managers at several companies. But gone are the days of double-digit pay increases, hiring bonuses and full benefits slates. Training budgets are also likely to remain flat.

While the news focuses on layoffs, job seekers can’t afford to be deterred, says John Madigan, vice-president of corporate human resources at The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. Madigan helps coordinate hiring for an IT staff of 3,500. The Hartford, Conn.-based company currently has 60 IT job vacancies – half the number of openings it had a year ago. Madigan says some previous job vacancies were reduced through attrition, and recruiting was much easier in 2001 than in previous years.

Key Skills in Demand

“There’s a much more rigorous approval process for filling jobs,” Madigan says. “But here’s an inside tip for job seekers: Most firms, even those experiencing layoffs, will still need good people in key areas. It’s best to target good, solid firms…that are likely to be around providing jobs in the future.”

Officials at Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International Inc., which was hit hard economically by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, say IT hiring will be diminished compared with levels of several months ago. But they declined to be more specific.

However, Marriott will be hiring people to fill jobs involving enterprise applications, Internet programming, project management and senior leadership, according to George Hall, vice-president of human resources for IT. And Marriott plans to continue to provide IT workers with mission-critical training and competitive compensation.

“Certain skills are still highly valuable and recruited,” says Hall. Still, he warns that job seekers “should be more flexible and be willing to take on unusual assignments that support a company’s short-term business needs in this changing economy….Given that demand is not as great, employers can be more selective and will want to see stability as well as skills in their recruits.”

Several managers say IT job seekers haven’t reached the level of desperation that they experienced in the 1980s.

However, Len Tenner, CIO emeritus at Hewitt Associates LLC, a human resources outsourcer in Lincolnshire, Ill., says he has worked in IT since 1961 and has not seen a “more confused time.”

“We have a weak economy, terrorism, the burst of the dot-com bubble and the Internet infrastructure bubble, and new technologies that are not well understood all at the same time,” says Tenner. “That is unprecedented in my lifetime.”

To overcome the general uncertainty and the doom and gloom that accompanied the latest unemployment statistics, Tenner recommends that job candidates focus on the things they can control, such as getting training in hot areas.

Increasingly, training is being offered at regional sites to cut down on travel costs, and many classes are being offered over shorter time periods to make them more convenient and less expensive.

Many technology associations offer one- or two-day seminars for nominal fees, says Lily Shue, information systems manager at Sony Electronics Inc. in Park Ridge, N.J., and chairwoman of the Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based Information Systems Audit and Control Association and Foundation.

Shue says candidates need to pay constant attention to the news – monitor business and technology trends. And job seekers should keep their eyes open to new opportunities, perhaps in different industries than the ones they’re used to.

Patience a Virtue

The year ahead may be a long one for job seekers, some staffing consultants predict, especially if the recession gets worse.

“Patience is required, as the pace of employer decisions will be slow,” Tenner says.

The time required to get hired at a job paying more than US$100,000 could be more than a year, compared with six to nine months required two years ago, says Marc Lewis, managing director of IT hiring at Christian & Timbers, an employment firm in Stamford, Conn.

Everyone from managers to recruiters stresses the value of networking, for job seekers and for employed IT workers alike. “Personal networking is key and may be the most important route to placement,” Tenner says.

Employment seekers may have to adopt a different mind-set when seeking work in 2002, advises Jerry B. Hale, director of global business systems at Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical Co.

“Job seekers can expect companies to have a lot higher expectations now, and companies will be much less tolerant of poor performance,” Hale says. “Business skills and accountability and a desire to align the business will be important in the future.”

And if you think all is forgiven in IT when it comes to recent job-hopping, think again. Employers will take a more skeptical view of job-hoppers, whom they associate with higher training costs, says Jon Ricker, president and CIO of Limited Technology Services, part of retailer The Limited Inc. in Columbus, Ohio.

Ricker also urges IT workers to build up so-called soft business skills now to enhance their future marketability by accepting assignments that involve communication and consulting skills.

Making the Best of a Bad Job Market

Hiring consultants, analysts and IT managers offer the following tips on managing your career during the recession:

Stay Put

First, and most obvious, it’s best not to leave your present job for the time being, unless you’re forced to.

“This recession can last for a long time,” says Fran Quittel, a staffing consultant at Frances Quittel Inc. in Emeryville, Calif., and Computerworld (U.S.)‘s Career Adviser columnist.

“I hate to say this, but if there’s another terrorist incident, it could make the recession last longer. There’s a lot of mental stuff in this job market, just like the boom in dot-com was mental the other way,” Quittel says.

Get Training

Consider getting training or certification in some of the hotter job categories in IT, including security and disaster recovery. These are areas where salaries are showing the best increases and where there’s a clear need for hiring this year.

Regarding security, IT managers “are hiring security-skilled systems admins as fast as they can” but showing less mercy with pure managers who can’t provide technical savvy, says Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute in Bethesda, Md.

Paller recalls one example in which a chief information security officer was told he was being fired because he couldn’t harden a firewall.

David Foote , an analyst at Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn., says that security jobs will be most in demand starting in the third quarter, when companies will begin to realize the valuable role security plays in attracting customers.

It will be technologists in security, as well as business managers, who see the critical value of security, says Foote, who is also a Computerworld (U.S.) columnist.

In addition, he predicts an uptick in network and enterprise data services jobs.

Reach Out

Network, stay in touch, and stay flexible.

Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of RHI Consulting in Menlo Park, Calif., says the current recession isn’t as tough as that of the 1980s, when job candidates would try to offer her money under the table in return for priority consideration in job placements.

“The economy is as bad as you make it, but every single day, you have to keep reading what’s happening in the news and how that impacts technology. Keep your skill set hot and current,” she says.

Lee and Quittel point to the possibility of changing industries to find work.

“Think about how well the mortgage companies are doing now,” Lee says. She also urges IT workers to look at the biotechnology and health care fields. In those markets, the work ranges from cloning and the creation of human skin to the development of pharmaceuticals and the implementation of new government health standards.

To illustrate the importance of staying flexible and keeping an open mind, Quittel recalls one IT worker who was laid off from a software company in Silicon Valley and sent out 500 r