The IT job market is either hot or lackluster, but mostly it is difficult for anyone who is seeking a job or hiring.
There are plenty of companies searching for employees, but jobs are nonetheless elusive for many. It's a job market of contradictions.
Employers aren't making it easier for job seekers, and they may be suffering from expectation inflation. Some employers want superstars, with resumes as rich as the high school student who not only played quarterback for the varsity football squad, but also led the math club to the state tournament, starred in the school production of Macbeth and earned a 4.0 GPA.
A different problem faces Crown Equipment, a manufacturing company that makes forklifts and other types of equipment used to move materials around. It has about 16 IT job openings in product development and business operations. The problem Crown faces is attracting candidates to its location in the small town of New Bremen, Ohio (pop. 3,000). The slightly larger town of St. Marys (pop. 8,300) is about 8 miles to the north, and the closest large city, Dayton, is 60 miles away.
"[New Bremen is] a great place to raise a family, but if you want to go to Taco Bell you have to drive to St. Marys," said Jim Gaskell, director of global Insite products at Crown.
Insite is the name of a product line that helps customers track their forklifts and personnel, make better use of their equipment, and provide overall operational intelligence. Crown hosts the system in the cloud, and customers, if they so choose, can deploy it independent of their internal IT systems.
Gaskell said that hiring a recent college graduate isn't as difficult as getting someone with experience, such as a software architect. Experienced workers often don't want to relocate or switch jobs, he said.
Finding people with "good experience" is difficult, but the rural environment can be a selling point for some -- and so can the company's practice of promoting from within, said Gaskell.
But is the IT job market harder to deal with today? "I wouldn't say it is harder today -- this is a problem we have had since the beginning of time," said Gaskell.
Michael Beckley, the CTO and a founder of Appian, has a completely opposite view of the job market. Appian is a business process management (BPM) software provider that combines social, mobile and cloud.
"It's the most competitive we've seen it, and in some ways it is even more competitive than the dot-com days," said Beckley, noting that competition is especially hot for people with key skills, such as mobile app developers. The company is based in northern Virginia, near Washington.
"We're always looking for the most skilled people, the most talented people, who are capable of inventing the future, not just doing the same old type of work that's become a commodity -- fixing code, testing code that someone else wrote, that someone else invented," said Beckley.
The number of people who can meet that criteria, said Beckley, is small, "so we don't have a huge labor pool to pick from coming out of the top schools."
The competition for these candidates can be fierce. Beckley says a venture capital-funded startup outbid him by $42,000 in salary for one candidate.
Appian wants people who have been exceptional performers. For a new college graduate, that might mean the company would lean toward someone who has built an app that's available in Apple's App Store.
When it comes to more experienced workers, Appian might be attracted to someone who has contributed to an open-source code base and has received positive feedback for it.
The company has hired 40 people so far in 2012, and it may hire as many as 60 by the end of the year. It currently employs about 200 people.
John Flaa, vice president of client services at Vettanna, a San Francisco-based staffing firm that also manages workers at client sites, mostly Fortune 500 companies, said job seekers face increasing challenges.
In the past few years, there has been a shift among clients in the type of person they want to hire, Flaa said. For instance, clients would once ask for someone who has experience with the Python programming language, but would put it in a "nice to have" category. "Now it's must have Python experience," he said.
Employers are often seeking combinations of skills, such as experience in multiple languages, and "that's when experience gets really difficult," said Flaa.
"There is a general feeling out there that there are lot of people out of work and that people should be happy to get a job -- any job -- so they raise their level of criteria in interviewing," said Flaa.
Analysts offer varying interpretations of U.S. employment numbers as they pertain to the IT labor force, depending on how service and consulting jobs are counted.
The U.S. experienced a net gain in 80,000 jobs last month, another month of weak hiring. That included a net gain of 8,200 IT jobs, from the prior month, according to Foote Partners, an IT workforce research firm. Foote sees the increase as continuing evidence that IT professionals are "desired and being hired."
Not so, says Janco Associates, another firm that tracks the IT labor market. Janco said it only counted 3,400 jobs, or 4.25%, that were in IT, describing that as weak growth.
But the analysts seem to agree that it can be a difficult market for job seekers.
According to Foote, the skills most in demand among employers "may be elusive to large numbers of unemployed and underemployed tech workers."
Janco says the IT labor market is struggling and the number of people looking for jobs is at a record low. This labor force participation rate is the lowest it has been since 1980.
"With low hiring demand and low participation rate, the picture is not pretty for recent IT graduates and other IT professionals looking for new jobs," Janco said in its report.
Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.