IT pros feel the pinch

As recently as a year ago, headhunters called Joni Ferrari with enticing job possibilities several times a week. A veteran network and system administrator for Polaroid Corp., Ferrari was in demand. She figured she would be able to get a nice salary increase and maybe even a signing bonus by jumping to another company. But she wanted to remain at Polaroid, where the benefits were good and she had built up much seniority.

How things have changed. Now, in the aftermath of a sharp economic downturn followed by last month’s terrorist attacks, the headhunters have stopped calling. Polaroid filed for bankruptcy earlier this month and Ferrari counts herself among the lucky just to have a job.

“I’d rather take a pay cut if I had to than pound the pavement right now,” says Ferrari, a 16-year employee of the instant-imaging firm in Cambridge, Mass. Ferrari has seen scores of colleagues leave Polaroid – voluntarily and not – in the past three years. Many who departed since the beginning of the year have not yet found jobs. “I also know people who were laid off from Polaroid who went to companies that are just now beginning to have layoffs. It’s tough now,” she says.

Tough indeed. A cold wind is blowing on the national employment outlook. Network professionals are hardly immune. According to Frank Lennon, CEO and founder of executive search firm F.P. Lennon Associates Inc., demand for people with network skills has definitely dropped. “At the beginning of last year, if there was a position available, [the new hire] would get a signing bonus of at least US$10,000 and a 20 per cent salary increase. Today, none of that is going on,” says Lennon, in Deerfield Beach, Fla. “It’s an employer’s market right now.”

Where open positions exist, most candidates are content to take modest salary increases of 5 per cent or less, or else make a lateral move. It is, as they say, a different world. The IT labour shortage appears to be a thing of the past.

Even those with the hottest skills are finding themselves treading water. Ferrari’s husband, Tom, is an Oracle Corp. database administrator for the state of Massachusetts with up-to-the-minute certifications and training. Earlier this year he started working with a headhunter but stopped after she told him he was unlikely to garner a large salary increase by moving to another job. And that’s before the widespread layoffs and drop in demand that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. It’s a relatively grim picture.

That is, unless you’re the one doing the hiring. Randy Gardner, vice-president of IT for Viking Freight Inc., says the downturn has created a better hiring environment for his company. Viking is a subsidiary of the US$19 billion Federal Express Corp. “We see more candidates than we would have 12 to 18 months ago, and the candidates are stronger,” says Gardner, at Viking headquarters in San Jose.

In fact, Gardner just filled the last opening on his 130-person IT staff, which would have been an amazing feat a year and a half ago, when vacancies typically ran about 18 per cent at the company.

“It used to be unusual to have two good candidates to choose from. And if you found a strong candidate, you’d have to snap him up in 24 hours. He would have multiple offers within one day,” he says. This was especially true for those with hot skills, such as Cisco Systems Inc. routing pros, security experts and Unix systems administrators. Now as the hiring situation eases, Gardner says he feels “like a thorn has been removed” from his side.

Retention has also become easier. Viking’s voluntary turnover rate has declined for the past three years and is now in the low single digits. And employees are less demanding when it comes to raises and bonuses.

“Employees are more understanding about the current economic environment. We’re a very stable and profitable company, so they are happy to be working here. Many have friends who had been working for dot-coms who have been laid off,” Gardner says.

As for his own career prospects, because Gardner has been at Viking for 23 years and is not looking to make a move, his outlook is undiminished. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says.

Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer in Waban, Mass. She can be reached