Silicon mesa

A great climate and a relaxed atmosphere might sound wonderful to someone who's been in an IT pressure cooker too long. And it would sound even more wonderful if the region around Albuquerque, N.M., could offer plentiful jobs in addition to all of that. After all, the area bills itself as the Silicon Mesa, an up-and-coming high-tech job mecca. And at first glance, things seem promising here.

It took Rick Crabtree, CIO at St. Joseph Healthcare in Albuquerque, three months to find his most recent new employee because experienced help is scarce.

"In the past, we might have 10 résumés on the shelf - or 100, depending on what we were looking for," says Crabtree. "Now, we don't have any."

Look a little deeper, though, and you might start to wonder if the Silicon Mesa name fits. According to Crabtree, employees in the area are "sitting tight" and not changing jobs, leaving few openings. Recent graduates or people who are switching careers with little IT experience may not find the market as welcoming as perceptions would have it.

It has recently become common for geographic regions to invent marketing names for themselves - most often including words like silicon, digital or Internet - to attract both employers and personnel; Silicon Alley in Manhattan is a good example.

IT professionals should take literal note of the name Silicon Mesa, which refers to the region in northern New Mexico bounded by Albuquerque, Los Alamos and Santa Fe. The job market during the next year or two is likely to be what the name implies: It will largely be built on silicon, and a graph representing opportunities in the area would be flat, with steep drops at the edges.

"What's confusing to me, there was an article last year [in a major newsweekly] that showed Albuquerque in the top 10 of hiring IT," says Jerry Esch, enterprise information systems manager at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque. "We were mentioned ahead of lots of bigger cities. I looked at that and was saying, ‘I'm not sure where they got this from.' Yes, Bill Gates got his start here, but Bill Gates is gone." (Microsoft Corp. started in Albuquerque.)The area can legitimately portray itself as a leading technology center.

The Department of Energy and the Department of Defense perform much of their work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and at Sandia. Sandia spins off many companies that commercialize the results of its research. Intel Corp. and Philips Electronics NV have semiconductor manufacturing facilities in the area. And Honeywell International Inc. and The BFGoodrich Co. together employ almost 2,000 local residents in the aerospace industry.

Unfortunately, the presence of high-tech organizations doesn't always mean there are a lot of high-technology job opportunities. For example, Honeywell has 1,500 employees, but only 57 work in IT, and only eight jobs are open.

"New Mexico by far always had a very slim technical market," says Thelma Rey, human resources director at McBride and Associates Inc. in Albuquerque. "My experience has been that when folks become technically competent, they find jobs outside the state."

Part of the explanation is probably the pay, which tends to be low compared with many other areas. "Anyone who does move here will take a pay cut," says John Ortiz, vice president of business development at Bency and Associates LLC, a recruiting firm in Albuquerque. He estimates that salaries are 10 percent to 45 percent lower than in other areas of the country.

"People don't usually move here for the job opportunities; they move here for the environment," says Ortiz.

"I think [business] is more relaxed and a little bit less driven," says Crabtree, who has worked in both Denver and Houston.

According to Randy Burge, executive director of the New Mexico Information Technology Group, the region's IT market is still in its infancy. That means there is little centralized communication, so those who need work may never hear about positions. Making this infancy more difficult is the nature of the technology atmosphere. Spin-offs from the labs tend toward leading-edge applications, such as cluster supercomputing or advanced modeling and simulation. That means state-of-the-art technology and software design, so designers and developers should have an opportunity to hone their skills - assuming that they're able to find jobs.

Sherman is a freelance writer in Marshfield, Mass.

Sidebar: The Market

The Silicon Mesa includes the middle Rio Grande Valley, near the cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Los Alamos.

Top IT jobs: Programmer/analysts, experienced network administratorsTop IT skills: Oracle, distributed systems, SQL ServerMajor industries: Semiconductor, electronics, governmentSalaries: Entry-level C programmer, US$35,000; staff analyst/programmer, $50,000 to $55,000; senior staff analyst/programmer, $75,000 to $80,000; Oracle database administrator, $50,000; senior administrator managing others, $90,000 to $100,000Corporate cultures: Tend to be more relaxed and less hectic than those in major IT centersThe recruiter's view: The Silicon Mesa is most hospitable to those who have extensive IT backgrounds, according to John Ortiz, vice president of business development at Bency and Associates.

"The people who are actually getting jobs have a variety of skills [and] a lot of experience, five to 10 years minimum." There's little room for those with no experience. Such employees are best off getting early experience in state or local government, rather than at laboratories or in private industry.

Because the job market is so tight, employers can often afford to be picky, so the winning edge for candidates is having experience in the appropriate vertical industry. A job search can last a couple of weeks for someone with a heavy Oracle database background or up to six months "for someone who has one [programming] language and less than five years' experience," Ortiz says. If you're thinking of relocating to New Mexico, plan on a pay cut of as much as 45 percent - without a low cost of living to balance it.

- Erik Sherman

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