Job experts: Fresh skills key for a return to IT

With no definitive measure of how IT hiring fared during the recession, job experts hold conflicting opinions about the residual effects on that sector.

Hiring experts offer anecdotes about some IT professionals who lost senior-level positions and took more junior-level jobs instead or of others who left the field entirely. One market watcher said Silicon Valley hiring managers are still unable to keep up with the flood of resumes. According to another, even at the downturn's peak, the IT field's unemployment rate hovered around 4.5 percent, or half of the U.S. national average.

"There's still ... a significant number of people in the greater Silicon Valley, Bay Area just in the tech sector alone, that are out of work," said Kevin Grossman, chief marketplace evangelist with HRmarketer.com, a marketing software and services firm for the human resources industry.

"Unfortunately there [are] quite a few" Silicon Valley IT professionals who have been unemployed for a few months to two years, added Grossman, who is also works with Focus.com, a business professional social network whose members offer advice on a range of IT and business topics.

U.S. Department of Labor unemployment data for Silicon Valley shows the recession did impact the region, though not necessarily IT.

Since April 2010, Silicon Valley's unemployment rate has tallied higher than the U.S. national unemployment rate, which has come in at approximately 9 percent over the past few months. The most recent U.S. Department of Labor figures, released Friday for June, place the national unemployment rate at 9.2 percent. In May 2011, 9.9 percent of the full-time work force in Sunnyvale, San Jose and Santa Clara, the California cities regarded as tech's heartland, found themselves unemployed. This figure was down from 10.1 percent in April.

"There are people that took much lesser skilled positions and had a really hard time finding the work that they may have been laid off from doing," said Jack Cullen, executive vice president and president, information technology, at staffing firms Modis and Ajilon Consulting.

While acknowledging the labor issues some tech workers face, Cullen also noted that job seekers will see increased career opportunities in the coming months.

The industry has "rebounded pretty aggressively from the early third quarter of last year," he said, adding that infrastructure upgrades and a focus on portability mean companies will hire network administrators and mobile developers. "Throughout the course of the year I think we're going to be getting some of the backlog off of the shelves and companies are going to start investing in things they need to do."

Professionals trying to reenter the tech sector can take certain steps to help improve the prospects for matching their skills to the available positions.

In addition to an uptick in tech jobs, candidates will find employers that are more accommodating of a career sidetrack, said Alice Hill, managing director of tech job site Dice.com. This greater understanding comes because businesses are facing a "shortage of good candidates," she said, adding that Dice.com estimates place the sector's unemployment rate at 3.7 percent.

"The hiring manager, if they're really facing a sharp market, and you see somebody who had a really good job and set of career moves and then they had this one area where they just had to make do, I think that's really understandable right now," she said.

"There is a lot more leeway for different types of scenarios like this," she said. "The hiring filters ... are getting a bit more relaxed so anybody like that does have a good chance, especially if they can be honest about what happened and showcase a lot of the skills that they had maybe prior to their layoff."

Job seekers need to tell employers that "they've been staying up to date with the latest trends, really kept those skill sets sharp and [are] aware of what's going on now" and avoid "getting into a big sob story or angry over a layoff," Hill added.

She recommends using downtime to go online and research industry current events. Tech workers tend to focus on specific projects and not necessarily greater trends, she said.

Experts also stress keep knowledge and skills fresh by using the Internet to take training courses and stay linked to other technology professionals.

Online training offers "less expensive course work than going to a university-sponsored course or some course work sponsored by the software providers," said Cullen. Using an employment lull to grow professionally will pay off in an improved economy, he said.

"If you're keeping your hand in technology and you're showing that you're continuing to learn during some lean times, [continuing] to look at ways to make [yourself] more valuable when the market returns, I think that's a huge plus," Cullen said.

Contributing to online tech communities allows workers to feel like they are still directly connected to the market and keeps them current, Hill said.

Candidates cannot underestimate the importance of using their professional contacts to get a company's attention, said HRmarketer.com's Grossman.

Networking may help a person land an interview via a company's "back door," he said.

"That's where you're going to get a little more face time and maybe be able to make the case why you're the person who should be hired," added Grossman. "These days because of the sheer volume of applicants, now more than ever it is who you know."

In fact, for those candidates in Silicon Valley looking to return to technology, networking may be the only way to get noticed by a recruiter or hiring manager, according to Grossman.

"I can't speak to the specific IT unemployment rate in Silicon Valley," he wrote in an e-mail. "I just know the overall unemployment is high and that there is still a high percentage ... of tech folks out of work."

Even with a surplus of applicants, however, "it's not like any of these people are out of luck," he added. During the recession, many affected learned "how resilient they can be and ... how adaptable they have to be to survive."

For people who have been away from the sector for longer than nine months, Cullen asks: "How proficient are they going to be, [and] how quickly are they going to be able to get up to speed on what we're doing?"

IT workers looking to return to a senior position, spending up to a year in a junior role is not "catastrophic" but a smaller window of six months to nine months is preferred, he said.

However, returning to the executive ranks does not entail sitting idly by and begrudging the situation, said Cullen. Showing that they took actions to better their skill sets and improves themselves makes candidates "much more valuable in a recovering market."

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