CXO

When will the demand for IT consultants bounce back?

Like most IT workers, IT consultants have likely seen income dwindle in recent months. A report by the Information Technology Association of America suggests that while a recovery may not be underway, the demand for IT talent is still there.


It happens with alarming frequency: A resume arrives in my e-mail inbox with a cover letter similar to this one:

“Dear Sir, I was a highly compensated technical consultant on a sweet assignment for a Fortune 500 company when suddenly the world turned upside down. Now there are no jobs to be had, and I’m working nights as a fry cook for White Castle, spending my days looking for work. Can you help me?”

As a technical recruiter, there was a day when I would jump through hoops to gain such a valuable contact. Two years ago, folks like me couldn’t find enough folks like you. We attended seminars to learn how to find hidden contact information on corporate Web sites. We shared trade secrets regarding where to find free resumes online and which forums were open to allowing recruiters to post jobs without upsetting the readers.

The world is no longer as it was. As I network with other recruiters to try to find positions for those stars who approach me, it becomes obvious that the vast majority of us are now looking for openings rather than candidates. Those of us who work with both clients and candidates spend a great deal of time cold calling and employing other means to find the few employers who are struggling to fill those special niche positions.

As I’ve watched my income drop to a mere trickle this year, I’ve become just as motivated as the rest of you to try to find someone who can tell me with some semblance of conviction what is going to happen to the demand for IT jobs in the coming months and years. My search for predictions led me to the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).

Bouncing back?
In a 68-page report, “Bouncing Back: Jobs, Skills and the Continuing Demand for IT Workers,” ITAA predicts an aggregate demand for 1,148,639 IT jobs in 2002, of which 578,711 will go unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers. If these figures turn out to be true, the good news would be that this would represent an increase in demand of 27 percent over 2001. The bad news would be that this would only represent 71 percent of the demand for workers that was projected by a similar report in 2000.

The report goes out of its way to explain that, while managers surveyed were optimistic about their hiring plans at the beginning of 2002, many factors could lead to less than expected results. I thought it would be worthwhile to give a representative of the ITAA a chance to comment on the survey and respond to what I imagine might be the skepticism of many of you.

I exchanged e-mails with Marjorie Bynum, the vice president of Workforce Development with ITAA. She oversees all of ITAA's workforce and education programs, which address the need for skilled U.S. workers in the IT industry. Here are a few of my questions and her answers:

TechRepublic:  Was there anything that the report revealed that was somewhat unexpected to you or ran counter to popular opinion?
Marjorie Bynum:  Given the current state of the economy and the wave of layoffs, the size of the gap we identified was an unexpected finding. However, the industry is speaking and the gap numbers suggest that hiring managers are not finding the right skill sets on resumes.

TechRepublic:  What are the jobs that still seem to be hot?
Marjorie Bynum: I talk to executives from IT companies on a regular basis and they are continually challenged by the skills gap in spite of good or bad economic periods. According to our report, the hot jobs are network designers/administrators, programmers, tech support workers, and software engineers.

TechRepublic:  On a related note, hiring managers in early 2002 anticipated filling 1.1 million IT jobs in the next 12 months. The report specifically mentions that if only half of the anticipated positions are filled, it would return us to pre-2001 employment levels. Again, popular opinion would seem to indicate that the anticipated recovery has not arrived. Do you think that the recovery has just been delayed, or has something fundamental happened to change the employment outlook for technical professionals? What leads you to this conclusion?
Marjorie Bynum: The demand figures in the ITAA study suggest that hiring managers in IT and non-IT industries are cautiously optimistic about the future. Based on these responses from managers, we are hopeful that recovery may be on the horizon. I don't see that any fundamental change is happening in the employment outlook. Companies are still looking for qualified IT talent.

TechRepublic:  One finding of the report was that previous job experience was the single most important factor involved in obtaining a new job. It additionally states that the importance of certification has been growing, but has declined in importance as an entry-level credential. We regularly get e-mails from individuals who, for example, have recently obtained their MCSE certifications, have little to no work experience, and are having problems finding work. Does the survey seem to offer any hope for these individuals?
Marjorie Bynum: Specific experience counts in today's IT job market so I would encourage individuals with certifications to seek opportunities to gain experience through internships or apprenticeships. The slight rise in the importance of certifications does suggest that certifications are becoming more recognized by IT employers but it does not replace experience.

What this means to me
This was a huge survey, backed by a number of prominent companies, and the overall conclusion was that managers are ready to start hiring again. It would appear, based on the data from this report, that we may have hit bottom with regard to employment levels, and are slowly digging our way out of the pit.

I draw a conclusion that could be drawn from this report: There is probably a pent-up demand for more IT workers nationwide that will need to be filled sooner rather than later.

For those of you who have $75 to spend on the report and shipping, the report is loaded with information. Using data gathered from Dice.com, it even goes so far as to break down the demand for specific skills by state.

For some of us, the rebound may come too late. Some folks are going to have their visas run out and will have to return home, or will simply find that their skills are no longer hot and opt for retirement or continuing careers in other fields. As for me, the report gives me some hope that I may be able to give up that night job as a fry cook soon.

Do you have a career-related question or a prediction about the IT job market?
Send your questions or your job forecast to us or post your comments.

 

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