IT job seekers face hot yet terrible market

A turbulent mix of trends confront IT job hunters

The IT job market is either hot or lackluster, but mostly it is difficult for anyone who is seeking a job or hiring.

There are plenty of companies searching for employees, but jobs are nonetheless elusive for many. It's a job market of contradictions.

Employers aren't making it easier for job seekers, and may be suffering from expectation inflation. Some employers want superstars, with resumes as rich as the high school student who not only quarterbacked the football team, but led the math club to a state tournament, played Lady Macbeth on stage and hit a 4.0 GPA.

And then there Crown Equipment, a manufacturing company that makes fork lifts and other types of systems used to move materials around. It has about 16 IT job openings in product development and business operations. The problem Crown faces in attracting candidates is its location. It's in New Bremen, Ohio, (Pop. 3,000). Thankfully, St. Marys is about 8 miles down the road, and Dayton, only 60 miles away.

"[New Bremen is] a great place to raise a family but if you want to go to Taco Bell you have to drive to St. Marys," said Jim Gaskell, director of global Insite products at Crown.

Insite is a name of a product line that helps customers track their forklifts and personnel, make better use of their equipment, and provide overall operational intelligence. Crown host the system in the cloud, and customers, if they chose to, can deploy independent of their internal IT.

Gaskell said that hiring a new graduate out of college is not as difficult as getting someone with experience, such as a software architect. Experienced workers often don't want to relocate or switch jobs, he said.

Finding people with "good experience" is difficult, but the rural environment is a selling point for some as is the company's practice of promoting from within, said Gaskell.

But is the IT job market harder to deal with today? "I wouldn't say it is harder today -- this is a problem we have had since the beginning of time," said Gaskell.

Michael Beckley, the CTO and a founder of Appian, has a completely opposite view of the job market. Appian is business process management (BPM) software provider that combines social, mobile and cloud.

"It's the most competitive we've seen it and in some ways it is even more competitive than the dot.com days," said Beckley, especially for key skills such as mobile developers. The company is based in Northern Virginia, near Washington D.C.

"We're always looking for the most skilled people, the most talented people, who are capable of inventing the future, not just doing the same old type of work that's become a commodity -- fixing code, testing code that someone else wrote, that someone else invented," said Beckley.

The number of people who can meet that criteria, said Beckley, is small, "so we don't have a huge labor pool to pick from coming out of the top schools."

The competition for these candidates can be fierce. Beckley says a venture capital-funded startup outbid him by $42,000 in salary for one candidate.

Appian wants people who have been exceptional performers. For a new college graduate, that might mean having built an app that's available in Apple's App store.

For a more experienced pro, one thing that might get Appian's interest is someone who has contributed to an open source code base and has received positive feedback for it.

The company has hired 40 employees this year, and may hire another as many as 60 by year-end. It employs about 200 today.

John Flaa, vice president of client services at Vettanna, a San Francisco-based staffing firm that also manages workers at client sites, mostly Fortune 500, says job seekers face increasing challenges.

There has been a shift by clients in the last few years in the type of person they want to hire, said Flaa. Clients would once ask for someone, for instance, with Python experience but put it in "nice to have" category. "Now it's must have Python experience," he said.

Employers are often seeking combinations of skills, experience in multiple languages, and "that's when experience gets really difficult," said Flaa.

"There is a general feeling out there that there are lot of people out of work and that people should be happy to get a job -- any job -- so they raise their level of criteria in interviewing," said Flaa.

Analysts offer varying interpretations of U.S. employment numbers as they pertain to the IT labor force depending on how they count service and consulting jobs.

The U.S. experienced a net gain in 80,000 jobs last month, another month of weak hiring. That included a net gain of 8,200 IT jobs, from the prior month, said Foote Partners. They see this as continuing evidence that IT professionals are "desired and being hired."

Not so, says Janco Associates, another firm that tracks that IT labor market. It said it only counted 3,400 jobs or 4.25% were in IT. They see weak growth.

But the analysts do seem to agree that it can be difficult market for job seekers.

Foote says the skills most in demand with employers "may be elusive to large numbers of unemployed and underemployed tech workers."

Janco says the IT market is struggling, and said the number of people looking for jobs is at record lows. This labor force participation rate is at the lowest it has been since 1980.

"With low hiring demand and low participation rate the picture is not pretty for recent IT graduates and other IT professionals looking for new jobs," Janco said in its report.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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