Getting out of the career catch-22

An unemployed Web developer who was laid off at the end of March writes that despite his best efforts, he can't find another position.

He has analyzed what he likes best about Web development, and concluded that he loves working with data. So, he would like to become a certified database administrator (DBA). But, he says, at about US$6,000 to become a certified Oracle DBA, the cost of is prohibitive given his current circumstances.

The Web developer (who for this newsletter will be called George) describes himself as "flummoxed."

"My head is completely spinning," he writes.

That's understandable. Like so many unemployed IT professionals these days, he has found himself in the classic career Catch-22: He can't get a job without retraining, but without a job, he can't afford retraining.

Moreover, job search times are averaging 30 percent longer in 2002 than in 2001, Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Grey & Christmas found in a recent study. Job seekers spent an average of 3.5 months to find new positions in the first two quarters of this year, up from 2.7 months in 2001, according to Challenger's Job Market Index, a quarterly survey of 3,000 discharged managers and executives.

George should at least congratulate himself on the fact that he has thought his dilemma through this far. He hasn't sat around complaining about being unemployed. Rather, he has assessed his skills and which ones have brought him job satisfaction; he has looked at the market and determined where he can channel his interests and skills into viable employment; and he has taken the extra step of mapping out a potential training plan.

The difficult step he must take now is figuring out how to implement that plan given his limited resources.

While becoming vendor-certified would be a great idea, perhaps that's something George can leave as a future goal (e.g., after he's re-employed, when his new employer may help finance the effort). Alternately, perhaps he can do it more cheaply - through disciplined self-study and using free or low-cost Internet resources - than it would cost to take all the official instructor-led coursework.

For example, the five exams required for an Oracle 8i Certified Professional Database Administrator range in price from $90 to $125, according to Oracle's Web Site (http://www.oracle.com/education/certification/index.html?dba8i_ocp.html). George's resume indicates that he's had some experience working with Oracle, Oracle PL/SQL and other databases, so he probably doesn't need beginner's classes. He could use an Internet resource, such as the SkillsDrills at BrainBuzz.com, to determine his strengths and weaknesses in Oracle, and then pick and choose online tutorials, CD-ROM courseware or Internet-based self-paced courses to prepare for the tests.

Joining his local Oracle user group is another option. He could likely learn a lot from the user group meetings, and also may find a study partner or mentor who could help him prepare for the exams.

If pursuing the exams still proves too difficult or costly, George should defer the certification and consider other alternatives.

For example, to demonstrate his commitment to his new career path, he might want to gain a Brainbench online certification. Brainbench.com offers vendor neutral certification exams, such as the Brainbench Certified Internet Professional (BCIP) program, with a specialization in Web development (including a database-oriented track), as well as Database Administration and Database Development certifications. After completing the exams, students can allow potential employers access to their test scores. These low-cost, online certifications signal to employers that a job seeker has reached a standardized level of proficiency and that they are committed to their further career development.

What's most important now is that George gains some kind of database credential, even if it's just taking one key course. It may be a financial hardship, but here's where he - or anyone in a similar position - must ask, "Can I afford not to?"

Concurrent with his efforts to redirect his career from Web developer to DBA, George should also consider that there might be other issues besides retraining that are having an impact on his job search. While the dot-com job market is weak, the demand for Web developers hasn't completely dried up. His location or his resume may be having as much - or more - of an impact on his job search as his skill sets.

If George is in a position to relocate, he might consider the possibility of seeking work in another region of the country. George lives in the Northeast, where the job market is particularly sluggish. However, in the Southeast and South, the market is more active. He might also consider the Washington, D.C., area. The federal government has launched a fairly aggressive IT hiring program.

Bottom line, if George casts his net further out, he may be able to find an opportunity that would provide the resources to pursue certification and redirect his career.

Expanding a job search to include other geographic areas "may actually help shorten ... job search times," said John Challenger, president of Challenger, Grey and Christmas, in a prepared statement. However, "Apparently, the nearly three million job cuts announced in the last 18 months and a stay-at-home attitude of many Americans since September 11 have squashed the willingness to relocate for new employment," Challenger added.

Another issue that may be holding up George's job search is his resume. A resume should not only convey your past job experience, it should also provide a sense of what was distinct about the job seeker's work (in George's case, what was unique about the Web sites he's worked on and what they accomplished for his employer).

George may want to assess his resume and possibly refocus it so that it shows (not tells) how his skills were brought to bear on the bottom line, on his employer's relationships with its customers, on improving business processes, etc. Rather than detail what he did on the job day-by-day, the resume should provide specific information about key projects he was involved with, and what his strategic and tactical contributions were on those projects.

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