Hard times

In interviews, more than 50 CIOs, high-tech hiring managers, recruiters, consultants and out-of-work IT professionals in different regions of the country told the same story: Two years of heavy corporate merger activity followed by the dot-com bust and a general downturn in the economy have brutalized the IT job market, victimizing even veteran, highly skilled IT professionals.

The result is the largest pool ever of unemployed computer specialists, who are alternately bewildered, angry and, increasingly, bitter. A harsh economy has forced many into lengthy unemployment, fuelling two urban myths: Jobs are being lost to less-expensive younger or foreign workers. The mere mention of the U.S. federal H-1B program, designed to enable foreigners to supplement the U.S. workforce, often triggers extreme emotions.

It’s true that most H-1B visas are used to hire computer workers, primarily as systems analysts and programmers at vendor companies. And younger workers are clearly a budgetary bargain.

But efforts to gather the statistics needed to capture a full picture of the state of IT unemployment revealed that in many cases, the experts don’t agree, and in others, they don’t even track the issue anymore.

Sobering Changes

What’s certain is that IT employment is changing on all fronts, with the advantage sliding over to employers. Experts don’t expect employment to climb back up to where it was in the heady dot-com years. The days of big perks and high salaries are gone. Job hopping is risky. Employees must be versatile and flexible.

Unquestionably, the brunt of the economy has come down full force on the employee side of the coin. The reasons for that are many.

More than 200,000, or up to 2 per cent, of the country’s estimated 10.4 million IT workers are now jobless, according to Harris Miller, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America. The industry group, which has lobbied for H-1B increases, also maintains that there is a major shortage of skilled technology workers.

But that just doesn’t fly with the swelling ranks of unemployed IT pros, which include plenty of people like Mark Scoville, a 44-year-old software engineer with a computer science degree and 18 years of experience, as well as current Unix, Java and other skills. Since being laid off in November after three years at Campus Pipeline Inc. in Salt Lake City, Scoville has sent out hundreds of r