Opinion: Despite recession talk, it's still a good time to be in IT

April's Bureau of Labor Statistics report on unemployment suggests that the lackluster economy may be on the upswing. Although jobs fell by 20,000 and the unemployment rate dipped to 5%, those figures were much lower than expected.

The fact remains that this is the fourth month in a row that the U.S. economy has lost jobs, but growth is still evident. There is less than a 2% unemployment rate in engineering and other tech sectors. And Yoh's recent quarterly Index of Technology Wages revealed that wages hit an all-time high in 2007 and are only beginning to slow somewhat in 2008.

Unemployment rates for those with some of the hottest tech skills — including computer software engineers, computer programmers, network and computer systems administrators and analysts, and computer scientists and systems analysts — were each below 3% in 2007. Meanwhile, computer and information systems managers saw an unemployment rate of 1.3%, and the unemployment rate for database administrators sat at just 0.4%.

Will history repeat itself?

Many industry experts are comparing the current economic slowdown with the burst of the dot-com bubble at the start of the century. However, there are two major differences.

The first is the attitude of businesses. The wild-eyed optimism and overspending on projects that had little market viability have waned.

Second is the geopolitical impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which eventually led to a slowdown in overall spending.

This time around, customer demand is still strong, project backlogs are still full, and there are no signs that works in progress will be abandoned.

The market is murky and in flux, but where there is strength in the market, there is a great deal of opportunity. Expect to see the most opportunity in SAP, project management and security, and for those who work directly on customer-related projects.

Some of the areas that will be weaker for the next few months include jobs that can be offshored or those that are not strategic to overall business objectives.

Staying relevant

If you're currently looking for a job, you may find that managers are taking longer to fill open higher-end positions. On average, companies that are aggressive in hiring may take 20 to 25 days to fill open positions.

The reason for this is twofold: Managers aren't finding workers with the level of skills they need, and employers are being more conservative with resources than in the past. They're spending more time evaluating candidates to determine whether they will have a significant impact on the company's bottom line.

Even if you're not looking for a new job, it's important to make yourself indispensable. As businesses heed the economic indicators and warnings they're receiving, many will look to tighten their belts, and some may do so by letting go of staffers.

Technology workers in the job hunt should zero in on how their skills can help businesses be more profitable, better serve their customers and improve efficiencies during a softening economy. While the overall market outlook is weakening, it is still a great time to be in the technology sector as employers leverage their IT talent to add value to the business.

Don't wait until layoffs are imminent or happening. Act now to secure your job and importance within your company by taking these steps:

Be relevant to the customer. Try to get placed on projects that are directly related to your company's customer base. In a recession, companies will be even more focused on satisfying and retaining customers, and the personnel and projects that interact most closely with them will be the last to get cut. Companies will rely on keeping customers happy to achieve profits, and by helping your business thrive, you remain an invaluable asset.

Try to avoid the unnecessary but "nice to have" internally focused projects and those programs that aren't significantly affecting the business. Those get canceled more quickly and frequently than the projects that are integral to the business.

Join trade associations. This is a great way to continually build up your industry knowledge without taking formal classes or certifications. These organizations provide opportunities to take on leadership roles and show your employer that you are willing and capable of taking on additional responsibility. They also offer you a chance to network with other industry insiders and perhaps learn about best practices you can bring back to your own organization.

Beef up your credentials. The most valuable IT professionals understand their company's strategy, operations and competitive environment and align that knowledge with technical expertise. For a sharp competitive advantage and a solid reason for your employer to keep you on board, seek postgraduate education programs that teach a variety of skills. The best programs combine high-level technology education with an introduction to basic business and communication principals.

Stay up-to-date on the latest certifications. Many vendors will offer the latest certifications online or even at industrywide conferences or events. They will keep you on top of the applications and make you a valuable asset to your employer.

Through this difficult economic period, it's important to remember that as of yet, technology jobs have not been affected by unemployment reports. While we are remaining cautiously optimistic that this will not change, it's important to remain relevant to the customer and stay up-to-date on the latest certifications and trainings for the long haul.

Jim Lanzalotto is vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh, a leading provider of high-impact talent and outsourcing services and a unit of The Day & Zimmermann Group. For more information, please visit www.yoh.com or contact him directly at Jim.Lanzalotto@yoh.com.

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