Crisis for tech workers: Life after layoffs?

As the recession deepens, IT faces fears and losses. But there are hopeful glimmers as well.

Signs everywhere point to the plight of the laid-off tech worker. Tech consultancy BearingPoint files for bankruptcy. Hewlett-Packard's profits plummet. Silicon Valley employment falls for the first time in several years. With daily layoffs and few new jobs available, techies have seen their careers careening off track -- and now they need to reinvent themselves or get off the tech train altogether.

There's no question the job market is getting worse: Companies are shifting more IT operations overseas, gutting IT staffs, and replacing seasoned veterans with cheap labor, all in a desperate effort to cut costs. Business survival trumps technical innovation. The sage-old advice that techies should hone their business skills to make themselves more valuable has taken on a chilling sense of urgency.

So far some 200,000 tech workers have faced the firing squad, according to TechCrunch. Many are still out of work today. I've spoken to a few whose words are often laced with anger, despair, and occasionally hope. They sift through the wreckage of their careers looking for anything to salvage, such as new skills that might make them less expendable at their next gig, or opportunities for consulting work to help companies fill the gaps caused by layoffs.

Then there are the downright fed-up techies ready to leave the profession. They don't see an end to outsourcing, offshoring, and H-1B labor trends driving down job opportunities and salaries. They shake a finger at the shady business practices of tech vendors like IBM, which incredulously suggested to its laid-off workers that they move to India, in lieu of collecting severance. They lament the common mistreatment of tech workers by employers.

H-1B and L-1 visa holders feel the backlash, too, as cries of national protectionism reach a fevered pitch. When Microsoft said it would lay off 5,000 people over the next 18 months, Senator Charles Grassley fired off a letter to CEO Steve Ballmer about Microsoft's "moral obligation" to protect American workers. Microsoft said a "significant number" of the first 1,400 people laid off will be foreign workers here on visas.

One H-1B worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells InfoWorld that she sees employers today having "a clear preference to the local population, which I think is the right thing to do." But she worries that she'll be told to pack her bags if the economy continues to slide. "I need to rethink my position in this country and maybe consider options in other countries," she says. A banner ad on the San Francisco Chronicle Web site reads, "H-1Bs, check your expiration date. Alberta, Canada, welcomes you. Permanently."

Cheap foreign labor discourages a veteran techieLike many US tech workers, Steve isn't a fan of foreign outsourcers. He's felt the sting of offshore outsourcing during his three-decade-long tech career. A technical support technician with three college degrees (including one in marketing), a dozen technical certifications, and stints at Fortune 500 companies, Steve was a recent victim of downsizing. He's had trouble finding full-time or even contract work, and blames foreign outsourcers.

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