Tim Heard is a technical recruiter for JC Malone, a career placement service. Tim shares his career advice by answering questions from TechRepublic members.

I have more than 15 years of experience as a programmer/analyst and developer/administrator across three platforms (NT/Windows/DOS/Novell, UNIX, mainframe) as well as experience with many legacy-type languages. I have done application programming and development for production systems, batch programming and processing, database development, and bulk printing.

I have certifications in some languages and processes (COBOL, Visual Basic, database development, business solution design) but no college degree. I also cannot keep up with the hottest technologies due to time and resources. Could this be why I’m having a hard time finding work?


That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Many people are at a loss as to why they’re having trouble finding work. I don’t think your lack of a degree is a problem. With more than 15 years of experience under your belt, few employers are going to fault you for that. A degree is something that helps you get your foot in the door when you lack experience. It tells a hiring manager that you can learn difficult concepts, work to meet deadlines, and accomplish larger tasks. As a more senior-level professional, a hiring manager is going to be more interested in what you have done and what you can do.

Your main problem is that you’re in the midst of a recession that for technical sectors of the economy may be a depression. Despite my optimism that there is some pressure building to create new jobs, they haven’t materialized yet. In fact, jobs are still being cut (consider IBM’s current effort to lay off about 5 percent of its workforce).

So things are bad. What can you do?

Take what you can
First, get over any preconceptions about what you’re worth. In an economy like this, your goal should be to hang on for dear life and find any job that will pay the bills. Furthermore, if you find a job that won’t pay all the bills, but will pay most of the bills, you should strongly consider accepting it and looking for ways to simplify your life.

I was reading some of the online chats the other day, and I couldn’t believe someone was complaining that he rejected a job that was going to net $13 or $14 per hour—after taxes and expenses. In my opinion, that’s a lot more than sitting at home collecting $0 per hour and complaining about it. A lot of people are getting by on less, before taxes and benefits are taken out.

Assess your skills and expand your search
With regard to skills, it’s hard to say whether your current skill set is holding you back. You might want to go back and look at my Builder.com article “Find the middle ground to move from mainframe to mainstream,” in which a couple of individuals comment on what sort of skills are helpful when building on a career in programming on legacy systems.

It may also help your efforts if you’re willing to expand your search geographically. I say this a bit hesitantly, because I know that a lot of recruiters are currently so overwhelmed with resumes from local applicants that they’ll hardly even look at any others.

If you aren’t currently employed, make it your full-time job to find work. However, instead of just sending out your resume to the major employers in town, try to get your hands on a list of smaller employers in the area, perhaps from the local chamber of commerce. Then start cold calling.

Better yet, see if the chamber of commerce will distribute your resume to its members—many do. Make it clear that you’re open to short-term contract work as well as long-term or permanent assignments. Remember: Your goal for now is to survive the downturn until things improve and jobs are plentiful again.

Review career goals
Finally, my best guess is that you’re in your mid-30s, which means you’re far from being locked into this career. You might want to do some soul-searching and ask yourself why you got into this line of work. Is it because you love the work, or because you loved the money?

If it’s the former, then by all means, stick it out. If it’s the latter, this might be a good time to start exploring other alternatives. There might even be financial assistance available if it becomes apparent that you need to return to school to receive additional training.

A good point of contact, aside from your local college’s financial aid office, is an organization like the United Way. Indicate that you’re out of work and seeking to make a career transition, and see if they can point you toward some retraining funds.

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