IT job jumpers more to be likely laid off than veterans

Those who took advantage of the hot economy of the 1990s to job-hop may now find themselves first on the layoff list and with fewer prospects for future employment as long as the current economic downturn lasts.

At least that's what some observers of the IT job market are saying.

The latest Job Market Index, published by Chicago-based outsourcing firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., says loyalty apparently matters to companies at layoff time -- a trend that favors baby boomers who didn't skip from job to job during the hot economy of the mid- and late 1990s.

The following were among some of the highlights of the study:

-- Twenty-six percent of those laid off from the 3,000 firms surveyed had been employed for fewer than 24 months.

-- In 1998, at the height of the labor shortage, workers between the ages of 35 and 54 stayed at their jobs for an average of 6.6 years, while those between 20 and 34 stayed in one place for just 1.9 years.

-- And, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for those between 20 and 34 was 7.9 percent in January, while the unemployment rate for people between 35 and 55 was 4.8 percent.

Those figures indicate a trend that runs somewhat counter to past recessions, John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in a telephone interview this morning.

In the past, it was often higher-paid employees with a lot of tenure at a company that wound up being cut first, while younger, less-experienced and lower-paid employees were retained.

"There is something of a bunker mentality at work," said Challenger. "Companies are waiting out the recession and need to keep people who know how the company operates."

To be prepared to take advantage of any upturn, companies will need people with an institutional memory of corporate practices, Challenger said. That includes the people who know how to get things done and who to turn to in times of crisis, not workers who can read a corporate flow chart.

Robert Klehm, research director at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Giga Information Group Inc., echoed Challenger's view.

"I agree with the basic statement that the people who have jumped around have a stigma attached to them," Klehm said. "What is the risk of laying them off, because they will probably just leave anyway?"

Klehm said he has had conversations with others in the IT industry recently who are saying the same thing. If two candidates come in the door, and one has had two jobs in the past 10 years and the other has had five jobs in the past 10 years, the candidate who has had two jobs is likely to get hired, he said.

"Companies are much more likely to look for more loyalty, more commitment," Klehm said.

He pointed to Sunday's Super Bowl victory by the New England Patriots as an example of the mood of the nation. They acted like team players and won a surprise victory as a team. That attitude, Klehm said, is what companies are looking for.

Still, Ryan Gilmore, branch manager at Menlo Park, California-based RHI Consulting, said he isn't quite ready to buy into that theory completely.

"I can't say that I have seen a direct correlation ... although excessive job-hopping can be seen as a less than positive attribute," said Gilmore, who works in the company's San Jose office.

Gilmore said the growing pool of unemployed workers allows companies to become more selective as they try to exactly match the skill sets they're seeking with the skills of job candidates.

In the world of consultants, however, there seems to be a lot more leeway for job hoppers, said Joanne Peterson, president of Pittsburgh-based Abator Inc. Peterson said that she has seen no change in attitudes toward consultants, who, because of the nature of their jobs, skip from project to project.

In the world of consulting, experience and a track record of success is what's important, Peterson said. If a person can show that he worked well with companies and finished projects on time, they should be all right, she said.

That kind of movement won't help when it comes to full-time employment, however, Challenger said.

"A lot of people out there are kind of jack[s]-of-all-trades and master[s] of none," Challenger said. "There is a feeling that they are not grounded in their field, and those people are suffering. Their depth of experience does not seem to be as strong."

Challenger stressed the need for those people with checkered resumes to have solid reasons for moving from company to company. Always chasing better offers or citing on-the-job boredom isn't enough, he said.

Klehm suggested that those workers build a function-based resume, as opposed to a chronology-based resume, focusing on skill sets and accomplishments.

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