Feature: Dull jobs but great opportunities

In the Web-enabled, e-commercial, data-warehoused brave new world of information-technology careers, job seekers who turn up their noses at less trendy positions may be making a huge career misstep.

Although it may seem that opportunity knocks only on the newest doors, plenty of work is still to be found in more pedestrian but no less worthwhile positions located a bit farther from the cutting edge.

For every Java jockey building the perfect browser-based database interface, there are dozens of traditional systems analysts dissecting code and software developers putting mainframes through their paces.

What's more, they like it that way, says Bill Brannen, director of workplace transformation at Sears, Roebuck and Co in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. "We put the sexy, flashy stuff up on our job-posting system, but the people who are working on the traditional things aren't flocking to apply for [it]," Brannen says. "Some folks really like to work on assembler programming or production support ... I would imagine most people here don't look at their jobs and think they're mundane."

Need for traditional IT knowledge

With 1700 IT employees and a strong recent push into online commerce and data mining, Sears offers its share of jobs that push the technology envelope. But the company has a much greater need for people who can do security administration, mainframe programming, quality assurance, desktop PC installation and other tasks that fall squarely in the mainstream of traditional IT.

Put together a Web page showcasing the latest appliances? Sure, OK, there might be an opening. Maybe.

Integrate a software package from PeopleSoft into the human resources department's legacy system? You're hired.

In fact, Brannen says, the backbone of Sears' IT department is the production support staff. All are professionals with at least three years of experience who are on call around the clock in case a line of code needs repair or a table entry needs correction. The job isn't glamourous, but it takes unshakeable knowledge of a mission-critical system and the presence of mind to be able to fix a crash at 2am after being pulled out of a sound sleep by an insistent beeper.

At Ameritech, the one-time Baby Bell turned telecommunications giant in suburban Chicago, 90 per cent of all IT hires go into systems development or systems administration. Those focusing too closely on Web development and e-commerce are severely limiting their chances of getting hired, says Renee M Schneider, the company's director of staffing for corporate information systems.

"The vast majority of the jobs we hire for are development jobs, traditional mainframe and client/server programmers through systems analysts," Schneider says. "Right now, out of the 250 job postings we have in IS, only four are groupware and only two are for Web development."

No, you might not be the envy of your friends when you're compiling code while they hop aboard Web start-ups. But when they get laid off five times in six months and you're steadily progressing toward CIO, with plenty of savings in the bank, who'll be more content?

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