Tech & Work

How does a small town guy find a job in the big city?

Since companies don't often jump at the chance to pay relocation costs, how is someone supposed to get their foot in the door for a job located in another city?

Tim Heard is the owner of eSearch Associates, a search and staffing firm that focuses primarily on information technology, project management, and legal technology jobs and recruiting. He is at the helm of the Career Management blog today to answer the question, "What's the best way to get a job in a big city if you presently live in a small town?"

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Small town life....everyone knows one another. It's safe to go to bed at night with the door unlocked. When you get sick, half the town shows up with chicken soup to make sure you're okay. Aside from Ernest T. Bass showing up on occasion, and stirring up trouble, life in small towns can be pretty nice, right? Well... maybe. But even if there are small towns out there where such a lifestyle still exists, they generally aren't such great spots for IT professionals.

In the current economy, finding good jobs is just plain hard for everyone. Back in 2008, I worked for a while as a corporate IT recruiter, also recruiting for a variety of other roles. While there were exceptions, my general experience was that within a few days of posting a position on the corporate Web site, there were more resumes than I could possibly manually review that had been uploaded.

Here's where things get tough for the applicant from a small town. The first thing a corporate recruiter does when faced with such large numbers of applicants is to narrow the field to something manageable. A logical first step is to eliminate everyone who's not local — let's say, everyone who lives more than 10 to 15 miles away from the work location. In Louisville, the town where I live, such parameters could include pretty much everyone within the greater Louisville metropolitan area, but would exclude most applicants in outlying counties. In larger cities, you'd probably only be pulling from one section of town with such a search.

Before I get flamed by a host of recruiters or others, let me stop and say that there are countless good reasons why one would initially want to use other parameters initially to narrow the field, rather than proximity. For example, businesses generally try to promote diverse workforces which are representative of the surrounding community. By narrowing the field too much geographically, it could potentially favor one group over another.

Can you see though how this would work? Even if a recruiter extends the search out to 30 miles or more, there are still applicants living out in the smaller towns and counties who are probably going to get eliminated on one of the initial steps to narrow the field. It turns out that in most cases, there are many qualified applicants for each open position living almost within a stone's throw of most employers. Need a NOC engineer? Oh look, here are two dozen of them, all with commute times of less than an hour.

This is the dilemma that faces Scott Newman, a veteran IT professional who resides in a small town about 30 miles outside of Jacksonville. His experience includes technical help desk work, operational support of Tandem mainframes as well as more recently NOC support of a large CISCO network. Scott is doing the "right" things that one would typically suggest to someone who's looking for a position. He has around 50 search engines set up on different websites and has sent out as many as 100 emails in a day when seeking to be considered for open positions. These aren't just generic emails either. He makes the effort to customize his cover letters to gear them toward the positions in question. Additionally, Scott has been proactive about upgrading his skills. Since losing his job as part of a workforce reduction, he has completed CompTIA A+, Security+ and Network+ certifications. Now he's working on his CCNA.

In a stronger economy, Scott would undoubtedly be employed by now. Unfortunately, the collapse of the housing market had a domino effect on much of Florida, and the jobs are just really hard to come by.

So, what's one to do, given the grim circumstances? Obviously, there's no silver bullet. Here are some strategies that seem to be working for some:

1. Stay put and generalize. So, you're a NOC Support Analyst? Hang out your own shingle and network with the local community. Maybe your doctor needs someone to back up her files and keep the security software updated. Maybe the local dry cleaner might be open to moving from a manual system of keeping the books to using Quickbooks. Perhaps there are a few people or organizations in town that need their own websites. Or maybe the chamber of commerce would be open to having you give a talk on the problems associated with logging on to Facebook from work.

Heather Williamson, a writer and consultant who resides in the town of 1200 she grew up in notes that networking in a small town is different than networking in a larger environment. To paraphrase an article she wrote on the subject, you really need to invest yourself in the community and get to know people. Scott has taken this approach and has found a bit of work helping out a couple of local churches with technical support and Web site development.

2. Specialize and be ready to relocate. I think Scott is generally on the right track. The goal is to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack with skills that are still not all that common. In that respect, the CCNA might get him some traction. Moving a bit further along that path, and thinking about needs that large corporations might have, CISA and CISSP certifications still have some strong appeal. (I spoke to a guy a couple of years ago though who tried to claim that he was one of only a dozen CISSPs in Louisville and almost had to laugh at him. While still somewhat rare, as more people flock to obtain those certifications, the market value will decline.)

3. Specialize and consult remotely. Honestly, I don't want to oversell this as an option. As the total number of jobs available has declined, so too has the need for employers to consider this as an alternative. Still, Web sites like guru.com, rentacoder.com, and scriptlance.com can be sources of real projects that pay real money. One option many might consider would be to bid low in order to obtain work, specifically for the purpose of strengthening one's resume. For example, if you have Java, C++, and VB.Net experience, but have only taken a class and tested on C#, do a project for next to nothing. That way when interviewed, you can point to what you have done as real world experience.

The downside to this is that work opportunities can run ho and cold. When you're busy, you're too busy to focus on trying to line up the next assignment. Then when your contract ends, you may go weeks or months between paychecks.

4. A final possibility that's not entirely new is onshoring. Yes, onshoring, not offshoring. The concept of onshoring is similar to offshoring. It's to outsource jobs for a lower cost than if an employer had to hire a complete team locally. I found a couple of good articles on this topic here and here. One such example is Rural America, a company that specifically seeks to find talented individuals in rural communities and match them with needs in larger

metropolitan areas.

There are obvious advantages to this general approach. First, unless matching employers in New York City with consultants from the deep south, communication is likely to improve when compared to most offshore settings. Second, give or take a couple of hours, you're in about the same time zones, so collaborating isn't quite so complicated. Finally, as a general rule of thumb, the onshore consultants are going to be US citizens, which means that they can also assist with many projects that have security-related requirements.

I got to have a conversation with Derek Gleim, a lead developer for Rural America, and formerly a consultant who employed strategy #3. As much as I love to talk about online job search strategies, Derek found something about Rural America on a bulletin board one day when visiting his old tech school. They had a client with a website that had been created with Drupal and needed help transitioning to something else. He helped with that problem ... the first step of what has been a fruitful career for Derek.

Derek noted that they are hiring.

A final note: Technology and politics change over time, but for now, things are looking a bit brighter for developers here in the US and gloomier for operations professionals. That's not to say that prospects are entirely great, or completely terrible for either group, or for their counterparts on the other side of the globe. Additionally, I think that the general economic outlook is improving. Recruiters and staffing companies generally felt the pinch before economists started saying much in public about a recession. (Back in 2007.) Similarly, I'm starting to hear cautious notes of optimism from some in the industry. It's hardly a reason to celebrate just yet, but maybe it's that glimmer of hope that will help us all hang n there until the hope becomes a reality.

Best of luck to all of you. I hope this at least sparks some helpful discussion and brainstorming.

Tim Heard is the owner of eSearch Associates, a search and staffing firm that focuses primarily on information technology, project management, and legal technology jobs and recruiting. You can find him online at Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook,

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