A recent survey by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) indicates that job growth in IT was slower than expected last year, forcing IT managers to revise hiring forecasts for the near future. In fact, the IT sector lagged behind the overall economy in growth in 2002. Although many expect a turnaround in 2003, the sluggish IT recovery has raised concerns about possible repercussions this year and beyond.

ITAA’s survey paints a rather gloomy picture for IT, but the possible consequences of the slow growth have many people particularly worried. If things don’t improve, students pursuing careers in IT may start looking elsewhere and leave the industry short on talent and scrambling to catch up.

The findings of the survey weren’t all bad, but they have raised many questions about what lies ahead for the industry.

The telephone survey of 300 hiring managers in IT and non-IT companies was conducted between July 23, 2002, and Aug. 7, 2002, with participants selected at random. Two 12-month periods were examined: January 2001 to December 2001 and July 2001 to June 2002. The intent of the survey was to determine changes in the views of hiring managers for these two periods.

On the good news side, the survey—an update to the ITAA’s annual workforce study—found that layoffs declined in 2002, an indication that companies have probably made all the cuts necessitated by the current recession.

One of the interesting findings of the survey was the areas in which the biggest net losses have occurred. Network administration and tech support saw the biggest net job losses—about 7 percent and just over 2 percent, respectively—but these two areas are also among those in which managers have been doing the most hiring. Now that the cuts have apparently ended, net admins and tech support specialists could begin to enjoy better job prospects. However, given the overall findings, competition for the jobs that are beginning to open up will be tough.

Other areas, including programming, database development, Web development, and technical writing, saw net gains during the same period, with Web developers enjoying the biggest increase—nearly 6 percent.

In its summary of the findings, the ITAA identified these significant survey results:

  • Layoffs have dropped significantly over the last 12 months. Between July 2001 and June 2002, the number of layoffs per month dropped to nearly half of that experienced between January 2001 and December 2001. (Notice that there is an overlap of six months there, as well.)
  • Companies hired far fewer IT workers over the recent 12-month period than during the previous 12-month period.
  • Hiring in IT companies dropped even more dramatically than it did in companies outside the IT industry. The ITAA found that IT workers had a better chance of landing a job with a non-IT company than with a company in the IT business.
  • Tech support specialists are the most-hired workers.
  • The skills most in demand—C++, Oracle, SQL, and Java—remained strong in 2002.

The ITAA is somewhat concerned that the continuing recession in IT will drive future employees to other professions. The long-term effect could be that IT will experience a drought of talent when it’s needed the most. When the recession is finally over for the IT industry, and companies need workers, they may find that the skills they require simply won’t be available. The big unanswered question, of course, is when recovery will come. Other industries have begun to bounce back, but IT still lags behind. The longer the situation lasts, the greater the possibility that the ITAA’s fears about a future shortage of skilled workers will come true.

Putting it together
The ITAA study reveals that although the IT job market remained flat in 2002, a trend that is expected to continue at least into early 2003, there are also some encouraging signs for job seekers in specific fields. The survey shows that in spite of the stagnation, demand still exists for net admins and tech support specialists—albeit not necessarily in IT-specific companies. Companies outside the IT industry have enjoyed the benefits of the economy’s slow recovery and are thus able to hire new employees. IT companies haven’t fared as well, and ironically, it’s in this area that you’ll find the fewest opportunities.

The study ultimately offers the typical good news-bad news balance. If you’re one of the lucky ones who survived the recession, chances are your job is safe now that the layoffs are over. But if you’re looking for a job, you may have a tough time finding something. Companies obviously still need employees with technical skills, as they are hiring in some areas.

Even if hiring in the IT industry remains flat, the recovery of non-IT companies will likely continue to drive the demand for networking and programming skills. So, in spite of the current malaise and uncertainty, there is also reason for optimism. No matter what happens, the need for a technically skilled workforce won’t dry up. Those who stick it out now could benefit when the economy turns around and the demand for IT workers outpaces the supply once again.