Depending on where you sit in the food chain, the titular global financial crisis (GFC) was either a God-send or a catastrophe. For the most part, however, it’s apparent that in Australia the downturn we all felt during 2009 and early 2010 was a speed bump of sorts that slowed the market, but didn’t stop it.
It is fair to say that over the years the ICT market has gone through its fair share of peaks and troughs. From the dot-com crash of the early millennium to the great economic downturn from which some countries are still reeling, technology organisations have ridden the roller coaster.
Now, prevailing forecasts indicate the Australian ICT job market is about to go up again. The first quarter of 2010 saw job ads surge, as companies moved to rehire and re-establish staff laid off a year or two before.
However, many companies are yet to be given the "all clear" on the financial front, and the uneasiness of yesterday remains as some brace for a possible double dip recession in the global economy.
Some companies, like Alcatel-Lucent are yet to fully "un-batten the hatches", as if unsure the recent economic downturn ever ended. For the company, partial blame can be placed on the national broadband network (NBN) which, with its key wholesaler NBN Co, seems to control most of the hiring in telecommunications at the moment. But the unpredictable economy does not favour it either.
Financial uncertainty in Europe, a forthcoming federal election domestically and sudden, significant cuts from major ICT employers like Telstra also don't lend any faith to an otherwise strengthening market. However, those with an eagle-eye view of the industry seem unworried, including Australian Computer Society (ACS) chief executive officer, Bruce Lakin.
"People are saying 'let's just draw breath, and wait and see for a little while', and that has a ripple effect into ICT,” Lakin said, calling any sudden halts "pauses".
But the industry representative body CEO says we're still “in an uptrend". It's a significant uptrend too, with the ACS recording nearly 13,000 new entrants into the ICT market within the past year.
While that's only a third of the 41,000 employee deficit required to get the ICT industry back to its highest standing in 2007, according to statistics from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), the overarching sentiment is one of positivity.
Driven to implement
"The ICT industry is driven so closely in Australia with the confidence in capital expenditure by end-user organisations," says Ray Fleming, general manager at ICT recruitment firm Kelly Services.
"With that in mind there's going to be more projects that were put on hold last year that will be kicking off in the second half of this year."
That trend has already begun — projects have ramped up so quick that some software testing firms have reported they are unable to find enough employees to properly test systems. In the end-user companies, too, C-level executives are providing testimony they want to revive and launch new ICT projects, only to find there aren't enough permanent employees or contractors to fill spots.
This has led some to prophesy a skills crisis — something we deal with over the page in "War for Talent" — but where does this leave the ICT worker? Is it a sign of a candidate-driven market, or something else?
Happy and happier
It is difficult to formulate hypotheses about a sector like ICT in a ping-pong market. Whether this is actually a "back to the future" moment as the market rebounds and possibly exceeds past efforts remains to be seen. But results from the Computerworld Australia 2010 Salary Survey indicate how ICT workers are faring.
Notably, over the past year, workers said they had seen a significantly increased workload, despite a burgeoning growth of IT departments in Australian companies. More has been demanded of ICT workers and yet, for the most part, salaries haven't budged.
These are key concerns Australian workers are sharing with their colleagues in the US and UK, and yet there is a key difference: Australians are happy.
In fact, the overwhelming majority of those who took the salary survey said they weren't considering a move out of their current position, and even those whose workload had increased were definitive about staying where they were. Some continue to mull those hard decisions, while IT veterans look to leverage their experience in gaining a better job. But these people are still sticking with ICT. Other independent job indices concur, pointing to the loyalty of ICT workers during a downtrend.
"The difference between this and the last downturn is people were a lot happier to stick with IT because they see future opportunities," says recruitment firm Greythorn Australia's managing director, Richard Fischer. "IT is now more of a rewarding career."
Those who didn't see a pink slip in their inbox over the past year seemed to stick it out, with good reason too: In Australia ICT generally pays well, it is constantly changing and it sits at the epicentre of most global changes, technological and otherwise.
Of course, sufficient attention is rarely paid outside of the industry to ICT's contribution; it's an enabler, and largely invisible until something goes wrong. But, within the industry, the loyalty Australian ICT workers have been exhibiting may soon pay off.
Along with the rise in the number of ICT workers, Lakin thinks salaries in the industry are also likely to have risen by an average of five to six per cent over the past year, exceeding inflation as a reward for productivity. Several job indices are additionally forecasting continuing salary increases too of between three and six per cent, as budgets move into the black and specialised skill sets become a commodity.
Undoubtedly, for some the potential salary boost will simply compensate for the sacrifices paid during financially downtrodden times, but for others it's a benefit. But for the ICT employee who wants to continue to reap rewards, it is the ability to commoditise one's skills that remains key.
"There's always a lag of a quarter or two between increase in demand and seeing a shift in the market rate," Fischer reckons. Given demand exploded earlier this year, salary rate rises surely aren't far behind.
But it won't happen overnight, and it won't happen automatically. As Lakin stressed, "it takes investment on [workers'] part to develop the skills to command the rate".
Unfortunately for ICT employees, internal training is often one of the first things stricken from the budget when times get tough. During the downturn Alcatel-Lucent, for example, scaled back its graduate program that saw business and engineering graduates rotated around the telco giant's different divisions for two years. While still in place, there are less places provided, and thus less opportunity for aspiring ICT workers.
Companies are still committed to training, according to Lakin, but this is largely reserved for those who already warrant an experienced position in the industry. At most companies training has become about getting employees up to speed on new issues, products and services already offered; not up-skilling them, or increasing their currency within the wider industry.
For entry-level workers, it's a different story: They are being asked to get productive, and do it quickly. Results from the salary survey show those in the 18 to 25 age bracket saw the biggest increase in workload over the past year, an indication that the responsibilities are continuing to pile up quickly. There is no longer the lead-time that many would hope to find when entering a new position; many IT managers simply no longer have the time to cope with training new staff and ensuring business flows as usual.
Those intent on developing a career in the industry may have to look externally for sufficient training not directly related to their day to day tasks, but a quick look at the job market points to the skills in demand, and the level of knowledge required. In other words, it isn’t hard to see what is in demand. It also isn't hard to get the training, should you be willing to commit, and those who do are more likely to build their value above others.
While the increased workloads are likely to impinge on extra-curricular education, the sudden influx of those changing allegiances to IT from other industries also means there are more inexperienced workers, and fewer to shine out from the bunch. Recruiting firms concur: Now is the time to look at specialising.
The [cautious] way forward
Forecasting the forthcoming year in the ICT industry is a veritable minefield, and one that must be treaded carefully. The rising excitement of early 2010 is warranted, but one slip in the financial or public sectors could see ICT’s legs wobble.
More than three quarters of those who participated in the salary survey indicated that staff and skills shortages were on the IT department's radar, while half were worried that turns in the global and national economies could aversely and directly affect their business.
To be sure, a double dip downturn would likely see ICT projects put on hold once more, and that would mean another slowdown in the employment market.
On the forecasting flipside, the candidate-driven market is, according to some, a very likely reality in the near future. Its own, negative effects are unlikely to be as great, but one extreme could conceivably lead into the other; companies' fruitless search for the right skills may simply lead them to put the projects on the hook until the market frees up.
For ICT workers, the market is promising: there are plenty of jobs on offer and those with the right skill sets will soon be able to demand an increased pay rate. For businesses, the market is looking up, but don't throw away your red pen just yet.
(See what you're worth with the Computerworld Australia salary calculator)