IT workers grin and bear it because of economy

Given the sputtering economy and continuous budget-cutting, many IT workers are finding comfort in the basics right now. Like simply having a job.

A majority of the 1,416 IT workers and managers who participated in Computerworld (U.S.)’s 2002 Job Satisfaction Survey said they’re generally happy with their compensation, job duties, relationships with bosses and understanding of where their companies are headed.

But while they’re grateful to be employed, the majority also said they long for many of the benefits that evaporated with the dot-com boom, namely a wider set of career options, higher pay and more training opportunities. They also want better communication with their bosses about their careers. Indeed, a solid 69 per cent of the respondents indicated that they aren’t working to their full potential. And only 24 per cent said they’re satisfied with their opportunities for advancement, while a whopping 54 per cent said they’re dissatisfied.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of [job] satisfaction, but [rather] a willingness to shut up and put up given the shortage of opportunities out there,” said Maria Schafer, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Because of the staff reductions and massive budget cuts many IT organizations have endured in the past year, CIOs “are trying to maintain service levels with fewer people than they had last year,” Schafer said. “And on the other side, you’ve got a workforce that’s really overburdened in terms of what they’re being asked to do.”

In fact, 56 per cent of the respondents said their companies have laid off workers in their IT departments in the past 12 months, and 58 per cent indicated that their companies’ IT budgets have been cut in that same time frame.

Learning to Cope

Some workers, such as American Fidelity Assurance Co.’s Marshall Foo, have been able to put the additional workload in perspective. Foo, a former marine who is a network systems analyst at the Oklahoma City-based insurance company, said he learned in the U.S. Marine Corps that “you take whatever you’re given to get the job done.”

Although two new positions were created this year, the IT department at American Fidelity has also taken on more projects, Foo said. The new work includes migrating the company’s mainframe-based e-mail system to a LAN environment, moving from Windows NT to Windows 2000 and integrating the company’s desktop systems and Novell network platform.

Overall, Foo said he likes the people he works with, is happy with his benefits and compensation, and is challenged by his job every day. “I’m 43, and this is absolutely the best job I’ve ever had,” he said.

Others agree that IT is the place to be. An overwhelming 89 per cent of survey respondents said they’re satisfied with their decision to pursue a career in IT, and only eight per cent indicated that they would consider moving to a position outside the IT industry. Nineteen per cent said they’re actively looking for another job.

As rampant cost-cutting has led to smaller staffs, increased workloads and fewer bonuses and raises, the remaining IT workers are being pushed hard. Earlier this year at PacifiCorp, an energy services provider in Portland, Ore., “there were a couple of projects going on where I was stretched to my limit,” said Cathy Taddei, an IBM DB2 systems software specialist. Fortunately for Taddei, the company decided to drop a DB2 data-sharing project, which lessened her workload.

Taddei describes herself as very satisfied in her job. But Steve Kerns, senior IT technical analyst at Cargill Inc., said his level of satisfaction depends on the day. That’s partly because Kerns has received just one three per cent raise in the past three years, despite having picked up responsibility for co-ordinating end users for a Web e-mail effort after the project manager was dismissed in July.

Although he isn’t actively pursuing another position, Kerns said he keeps an eye on the job boards. The problem is, there are “pretty slim pickings, and the jobs that are out there are being offered at lower salaries,” he said.

Lack of training was another complaint of many survey respondents. Forty-five per cent said they’re dissatisfied with the amount of training they’re offered. Kerns said Minneapolis-based Cargill cut back on technical training when money got tight. But now that business is on the uptake for the manufacturing firm, the largest privately held company in the U.S., funds are starting to free up, he said.

Although the overall economy has shown improvements in fits and starts, 48 per cent of the respondents said they’re satisfied with their job security.

Alan Sukert, a software engineer at Xerox Corp., acknowledges that he’s “lucky to have a job right now,” and he praises his company for its flexible work schedules and telecommuting policies. His main bone of contention is that the office products maker “doesn’t do a very good job of defining career paths for their engineers.”

Sukert, who has worked in software quality assurance at Xerox’s office systems group in Fairport, N.Y., for more than seven years, complains that software engineers who remain in the same pay group for a while aren’t encouraged by managers to take steps to get promoted. “So if the employee doesn’t initiate [steps to receive a promotion], it doesn’t happen, and the employee gets frustrated,” he said.

On the whole, survey respondents said they’re very satisfied with their relationships with their managers. Fifty-nine per cent of the respondents indicated that they’re satisfied with their relationships with their supervisors, while 22 per cent expressed some level of dissatisfaction. Half the respondents also said they’re satisfied with their supervisors’ management capabilities, with 36 per cent indicating some degree of dissatisfaction.

Career development seems to be the one area where managers fall down. Forty-seven per cent of survey respondents indicated that they’re dissatisfied with their supervisors’ active involvement in their career development, while 33 per cent said they’re satisfied.

Enjoying the Work

Despite pockets of dissatisfaction, most IT workers interviewed seem happy with their jobs and employers. For instance, Cliff Hill, an IT portfolio manager at Detroit-based Ford Flight Systems, an aircraft manufacturing division of Ford Motor Co., said he’s very satisfied with his job. That’s partly because professional development is emphasized at Ford, and employees are encouraged to take courses and expand their abilities, Hill said.

He recently took project management certification courses at Ford’s request and in the past has beefed up his managerial skills by taking classes in areas such as conflict management and running effective meetings.

Julie Waddle, an IT specialist at IBM in Raleigh, N.C., said she enjoys the diverse challenges of helping her company determine customer ownership and financial responsibilities for machines that have been sold or leased. “It’s been one challenge after another, a lot of detective work, and I like that,” she said.

And when times get tough and the grass seems greener elsewhere, IT professionals like Foo remember that working with good people is an important benefit that can’t be overvalued.

“There’s a little bit of tension here and there, but not the backbiting and politicking that you have in bigger companies,” Foo said. “A lot of the people here are just good-natured, down-to-earth folks who genuinely care about you.”