Special report: Hard times

In interviews, more than 50 CIOs, high-tech hiring managers, recruiters, consultants and out-of-work IT professionals in different regions of the country told the same story: Two years of heavy corporate merger activity followed by the dot-com bust and a general downturn in the economy have brutalized the IT job market, victimizing even veteran, highly skilled IT professionals.

The result is the largest pool ever of unemployed computer specialists, who are alternately bewildered, angry and, increasingly, bitter. A harsh economy has forced many into lengthy unemployment, fueling two urban myths: Jobs are being lost to less-expensive younger or foreign workers. The mere mention of the federal H-1B program, designed to enable foreigners to supplement the U.S. workforce, often triggers extreme emotions.

It's true that most H-1B visas are used to hire computer workers, primarily as systems analysts and programmers at vendor companies. And younger workers are clearly a budgetary bargain.

But efforts to gather the statistics needed to capture a full picture of the state of IT unemployment revealed that in many cases, the experts don't agree, and in others, they don't even track the issue anymore.

Sobering Changes

What's certain is that IT employment is changing on all fronts, with the advantage sliding over to employers. Experts don't expect employment to climb back up to where it was in the heady dot-com years. The days of big perks and high salaries are gone. Job hopping is risky. Employees must be versatile and flexible.

Unquestionably, the brunt of the economy has come down full force on the employee side of the coin. The reasons for that are many.

More than 200,000, or up to 2%, of the country's estimated 10.4 million IT workers are now jobless, according to Harris Miller, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America. The industry group, which has lobbied for H-1B increases, also maintains that there is a major shortage of skilled technology workers.

But that just doesn't fly with the swelling ranks of unemployed IT pros, which include plenty of people like Mark Scoville, a 44-year-old software engineer with a computer science degree and 18 years of experience, as well as current Unix, Java and other skills. Since being laid off in November after three years at Campus Pipeline Inc. in Salt Lake City, Scoville has sent out hundreds of resumes and landed five interviews, with no success.

"I consider the situation rather bleak," said Scoville, who was told by one interviewer that he's one of more than 2,000 qualified but unemployed IT workers in his area. "This is the most difficult period of my entire career. A year and a half ago, I could have gone anywhere and named a price. This is definitely not the case now.

"I don't think my age has been a factor," Scoville added. Instead, it's his experience level and his corresponding higher salary. "There are people who are very well equipped coming out of schools. They're fresh, with quick minds, and they're very inexpensive entry-level people as opposed to someone like me who has been in the industry for 18 years and demands a higher salary," he said.

A second sizable group on the unemployment line are IT workers who have a wealth of experience in a particular job or industry but whose skill sets are relatively narrow. Once a project is over or as their companies evolve their computing infrastructures to include newer technologies, they risk losing their jobs.

For example, companies have severely cut back on large SAP projects. Rather than signing on for multiyear, enterprisewide implementations, the trend now is for companies to embark on SAP projects a small piece at a time. Companies with mainframe needs want workers whose skills extend significantly beyond the mainframe.

Dot-com job cuts also continue to add significantly to the unemployment numbers. Many of those workers laid off in previous years have yet to find jobs. Rounding out the jobless ranks are tens of thousands of consultants and contractors who have lowered their rates after being cut from projects.

And come next month, all of these unemployed groups will be competing for jobs with a flood of new computer science graduates.

Age Issues

Since younger workers are cheaper to hire, experts say the potential for age discrimination is greater than ever. Indeed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported in February that age discrimination is its fastest-growing type of complaint.

"It's true that when companies are trying to cut costs, they tend to lay off higher-paid workers, who also tend to be older workers,'' said Lisa Guerin, an employment attorney and legal editor at Nolo.com, a Berkeley, Calif.-based legal publisher. "And when they bring workers back, they tend to bring in younger workers. The incentive [to discriminate based on age] is there."

Still, some IT managers acknowledge a preference for younger, less-experienced workers who they can pay less and train in-house.

Looking Ahead

Even as the economy begins to bounce back, new IT jobs won't be added in significant numbers. This is because companies have adapted to operating with tighter resources and fewer employees and are reluctant to grow labor and the other costs they worked so hard to slash.

"Any hiring we're doing is primarily replacement hiring for people who have left the firm," said Mike Lowe, vice president of staffing at Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Financial, which employs 5,200 IT workers. "We'll keep growth under control."

Where does this leave the unemployed? In addition to a broad array of skills and experience, management skills can help you get your foot in the door, even for highly technical positions. Having cut out middle managers, companies need staffers who can self-manage, said Ed Jensen, a partner in Accenture Ltd.'s human performance practice in Atlanta.

In the meantime, many unemployed workers like Mark Scoville will continue to collect unemployment. What he's hearing on the street is "almost always the same story: When the economy comes back, there will be jobs. They just started saying this at the beginning of April," Scoville said. But he believes that people "are generally more hopeful than the reality holds."

Reporter Brian Sullivan contributed to this story.

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