Career advice: Returning to IT late, and leaving it early

An IT Leader with advice on five issues facing IT workers today

John R. Wetsch, WISE program director from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is answering questions about re-entering the IT workforce, taking early retirement, work/life balance, the merits of a tech MBA, and the prospects for IT employment and the overall economy.

I left IT seven years ago, when my second child was born, and now I'm ready to get back into it. I used to do Windows support and some Exchange administration. How bad is my timing? Do I need a skills refresher before anyone will even talk to me?

It is never too late to get back to work. Employers will want to know if your skills are up to date. Good references attesting to how well you have done in the workplace are a must, as are evidence that you are up to speed on the latest versions and releases of Microsoft tools, platforms, applications, etc. Taking refresher courses is good, demonstrating practical application is better, and showing a prospective employer that you are a team player and you know your stuff is highly relevant. In addition, if you did any support work on a volunteer or part-time basis during your seven-year hiatus, include that experience; it shows that you were staying involved in the field. Overall, be persistent in your job quest, and realistic: Depending on your years of experience, you may be looking at starting again at entry level. You will need to market yourself through as many avenues as possible, including networking with former colleagues, to get to that all-important interview. With the current state of the job market, you will be competing against a larger pool of applicants, so don't give up.

I've been offered a fairly decent early retirement package. I'm 62, but I'm not eager to spend my days watching TV yet. I figure that even if I take the offer, I'll look for another job. But I actually like the job I have and don't want to put myself out there when others my age are having trouble finding work. The offer is enticing, but I wonder whether I would regret leaving this job. I guess I just want an outsider's view.

First off, if you decide to take the package, make sure that you believe you will have the financial stability for the long haul in case you cannot find another job. If you are comfortable with the package, you may want to consider taking it, but you should also evaluate your current skills and look at the job market to see if there are opportunities to pursue for another job. In today's job climate, another job may be hard to come by. You can also test the waters and see if you can get another job lined up before you take the retirement package, as this would allow for an easier transition. Or you may want to take early retirement as an opportunity to explore doing something new and different.

If you decide to stay put, you will want to make sure you are planning for your retirement anyway. My best advice on this would be to establish as many options for yourself as possible so that you can choose what's best for you. See if your companys human resources division offers planning services. The bottom line is to arm yourself with knowledge on retirement so you can make the best choices.

Layoffs have hit my security department hard, and we no longer have the people it takes to keep things as secure as they should be. Logs are going unmonitored, for example. I've taken to coming in an hour early, working through lunch and leaving an hour late. My wife wants to know when I'll get back to a normal schedule, and I don't know what to tell her. She's pretty unhappy, but I'm unhappy when I know there's more that needs to be done at work. What should I do?

Work/life balance is very important. There are some short- and long-term solutions. In the short term, you may want to work with your department head to see if there are some solutions that can reduce the manual overload. For example, automation scripts to check for some problems coupled with a less frequent manual review may reduce the overtime. Some checking and monitoring is better than no checking at all.

In the long term, having to do more with less can also be an opportunity for innovation and additional cost savings. I am hoping the department and company are aware of the risks that developed with the layoffs, so that appropriate strategies can be developed and actions taken to provide for security risk mitigation. This should be a serious topic of discussion. The severity and impact of your key security risks should be evaluated so that mitigation strategies and contingency plans are in place. This will take effort, but in the long run it will help bring peace of mind regarding how security is being handled as needed oversight is brought under control.

I'm in the middle of a tech MBA program that I undertook with the encouragement of my old boss. Since I started, though, he's been laid off along with several hundred IT people at my old company. It's not too late for me to switch gears and move into an MBA program here at school. Which do you think is going to offer more promising career opportunities in the next few years?

It is a bit of a fine line, but in my opinion if you already have strong IT skills and a very solid understanding of how to put information systems together that includes costing and what it takes for complete life-cycle management, then I would strongly recommend a general MBA. This will allow you to better broaden your management knowledge and provide for a credential that is not technology-focused but at the same time allows you to advance your career. You will then be better able to relate to nontechnical types, since this in effect improves your ability to communicate across business units. That in turn could even lead to upper-level management opportunities.

MBA degrees that have technology management concentration are good programs too and work to bridge the business gap that technology professionals often have. I would recommend staying in the program if you believe you have significant gaps in being able to do technology projects and management from beginning to end. Once you are successful in doing this, your MBA concentration typically won't matter and your project success will drive other advancement opportunities.

When do you see us coming out of this economic funk? Will IT still offer a good career path once we get back on track?

Getting out of the economic crisis will take some time. As these things get better, the effects will still be with us for a while, possibly up to another year or two after everything stabilizes. With that said, IT will still be a good career path for those with good technology skills and the ability to provide innovation and solutions. Information systems are not going away, and there will always be a need to continue operations and add value. I think the challenge for many companies will be for IT to innovate the best it can with what it has. Efforts with significant cost implications will probably be cut back or put on hold for a while unless they are absolutely critical. For now, the staples of IT will remain, but the number of the large and exciting projects will diminish until everything is back on track.

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