The information technology job market is about as dry as Chile's Atacama Desert. So arid is the employment landscape, in fact, that even experienced IT professionals are finding it hard to etch out a path leading to the right job.
"Hiring managers told us they expect to fill only 500,000 jobs or less [nationwide] this year," said Harris N. Miller, president of Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an organization that monitors, surveys, and promotes growth in the IT industry. In fact, of the 1.1 million job openings projected by hiring managers for 2002, only an estimated 600,000 slots were actually filled, according to Miller.
"It's probably the hardest, toughest market I've seen, and I've been in the market for the last 20 years," Maria Schafer said. Schafer is program director for META Group, an IT research and consulting firm that published the 2003 IT Staffing and Compensation Guide. "This year, out of 600 companies interviewed for our survey, about two-thirds indicated that they'd lost some staff."
Yet, despite the obvious drought, there is still hope for those experienced professionals willing to take extraordinary steps to overcome extraordinary circumstances. I spoke with experts in the IT field to find some out-of-the-box suggestions to expand your job search options.
Develop a plan
"When you are searching for a job in unreasonable times, depending upon ordinary strategies, like sending out resumes, having an elevator pitch, and networking, is not enough," Carol Limperos said. Limperos is founder and vice president of strategy and marketing at Houston-based Allindin, a coaching and consulting employment firm.
Veteran executive IT recruiter Debbie Harper, of Pittsford, NY-based Harper Hewes, Inc., warns that you shouldn't panic if you're suddenly unemployed and the thought hits you that there are way more job seekers than available positions. "Candidates need to take a deep breath and realize they only need one job—the right job. So take a step back and put together a plan on how to attack the market," she said.
Your plan should identify your job goal and then determine the industry or target group of employers where you'll direct your search. Harper suggested narrowing your search to your former employer's competitors or IT partners, companies that collaborate to create parts of one IT solution.
Your plan should dictate a course of action consisting of both traditional and cutting-edge strategies. For example, it should include developing an elevator pitch. All serious contenders should be able to recite their job goal, qualifications, and accolades within 60 seconds. But your plan needs to include innovative—sometimes even risky—tactics as well.
Dare to be different
Thinking out of the box for ways to land a job requires being "3-D," Limperos said. The three Ds are "daring, different, and discoverable." Everybody networks and mass-mails their cover letters and resumes, which perhaps sit in a pool of thousands of other similar documents, all vying for the attention of one overworked human resources manager. If you don't want to be treated like just another piece of paper waiting to be filed or tossed, figure out a way to stand apart from the crowd by marketing your skills and capabilities to a specific person or select group of people.
For example, to get the job of her choice, one of Limperos' clients found interesting ways to reach out to the vice president charged with filling a high-tech position. She began by delivering a handwritten note, which presented her qualifications and her reasons for being the best candidate for the job, to the vice president while he was attending a meeting in her town. Then she sent a more polished presentation package to his headquarters by express mail and asked his assistant to hand-deliver it to him upon his return. Her initiative and persistence paid off because she got the job, Limperos said.
Another Allindin client was unhappy at being an underestimated, overlooked vice president of a Fortune 500 company. He wanted to be taken seriously and to be considered for more challenging roles and promotions. To project a positive image and showcase his capabilities to decision makers who could open doors and further his climb up the career ladder, he wrote articles for, and became a source for, the journals read by that group.
Are you 3-D?
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Hone your image
To make the best impression on future employers, you need to develop your personal presence. You always want to be perceived as a person who is empowered, confident, and aware of the ways you can positively affect a potential employer. This sentiment should be expressed in everything from your physical presence to your presentation in print, such as your cover letter and resume. After all, a job candidate's personal presence reveals whether he or she will fit into a company's corporate culture or executive team.
It's vital to be sure that your image befits the position and potential employer, because, Limperos said, "70 percent of the hiring decisions will be made on your personal presence, and for a woman, that statistic jumps to 85 percent."
Be flexible about salary and positions
You can find the right opportunity more quickly if you're flexible enough to accept a lesser job or a decrease in pay initially. "If you once directed a fleet of people dealing with installing networks a few years ago, and that sector has been hit hard in the last couple of years, you may have to take a position that is a little bit different to get your foot in the door. Once you prove yourself as a solid employee in skill and character, you can apply for internal openings or promotions," Schafer said.
As for a cut in pay, these days a decrease in salary is highly probable, considering the drastic change in the economy. Schafer said that people believe the salaries or consulting fees of the late '90s were the standard going forward. However, that was very much an aberration period—a time of incredible economic activity coupled with a shortage of IT professionals, which caused extraordinary salaries.
"The expectation that you are going to make the same thing as a programmer now that you made in 1999 is probably not correct," Schafer said. "That's hard for people to accept because they say, 'If I was worth $150,000 four years ago, how can I only be worth $80,000 to $90,000 now?'"
Although the job market is flat across the nation, ITAA's Miller said that serious job contenders might consider relocation. "We see a little more strength in the Washington, D.C., area because of the federal government marketplace and slightly positive signs in other high-tech areas, like Boston and Chicago," he said. Job seekers might also want to identify non-IT companies that need IT professionals. An ITAA survey showed more stability for IT workers employed in nontechnology markets, whereas employees working in technology fields were sometimes more at risk for layoffs or decreases in salaries or benefits.
Stay on top of your game: Remember the basics
Whether employed or unemployed, you should strive to be more marketable by:
- Keeping your skills—soft and technical—current and fine-tuned.
- Maintaining a list of employment contributions and accolades.
- Staying apprised of trends and occurrences in your targeted industry.
Further, Harper, of Harper Hewes, strongly recommends establishing a relationship with a recruiter, who may often be aware of unadvertised positions. "In an economy like this, there are a lot of good people available, so companies use this 'employer's market' to weed out some of their average or marginal performers and bring in more top-level performers," she said.
Harper explained that this practice is called top grading. For example, if an employer wants to bring in a director of marketing that's better than its current one, the company will list the position with a recruiter. Companies may also use recruiters to protect trade secrets. For instance, if the company is rolling out a new product line, such as interactive video, but it doesn't want its competitors to know about it, the company may use recruiters to find the people it needs. Harper suggests researching recruiters using The Directory of Executive Recruiters, which is the famous Kennedy Information "red book," or the Recruiting & Search Report to locate one that fits your needs and goals.
Get your house in order
Finally, it's important to maintain an updated list of your references, supervisors, or alternative company contacts. You might even want to monitor your credit history so that you can delete incorrect information or create a plan to clean up negative credit ratings and citations. These steps are necessary because employers are more closely scrutinizing their prospects. Some conduct credit checks, while many others now make certain to verify employment backgrounds and credentials.
"Be honest," Schafer said. "There is more scrutiny going into validating information on resumes. Prospective employers want to know if there is anything in a person's history to preclude them from hiring. They are looking for signs of risks and questionable behavior, and this phenomenon has flared since 9-11."
Putting all this advice into practice will take a lot of time and effort, so it's important to do it right. "You need to treat looking for a job like a job," Harper said. "You need a plan, and you need to work the plan. If the plan is not working, you need to revise the plan."