How the Shifting Employment Market Affects Your Job Search

With the economy once again showing signs of life, companies are beginning to upgrade systems, develop new products and restart projects. In response, IT professionals are resuming job searches they had placed on hold. But the new employment market means old strategies for landing the job you seek may no longer be effective.

During the downturn, you may have experienced a trend known as "compression" firsthand. Many organizations with limited budgets and decreased staff levels combined multiple job functions into a single role. Programmers, for example, were often asked to evaluate end-user needs and gauge business requirements, as well as write code, test software and document their results. In essence, they were doing four jobs at once: serving as business analysts, QA testers and technical writers, in addition to their normal responsibilities. In fact, a number of IT job titles virtually disappeared as employees took on tasks outside the scope of their traditional duties.

As the economy recovers, the trend is finally reversing, and IT departments are "decompressing" in response to business growth. In many cases, this means filling positions for the first time since the Internet boom. Companies Robert Half Technology works with report more demand now for business analysts and QA testers than during the previous two years, for example. There is also a greater need for help desk professionals, specifically Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 help desk analysts.

What does this mean for you as a job seeker? More than anything, it will involve marketing yourself to potential employers differently than before. During the recession, organizations frequently sought generalists who could fill a variety of roles to help maintain productivity. Today, as back-burner projects get the green light to move forward, IT hiring managers will be looking for candidates with very specific skill sets. Here's what you can do to take advantage of this new environment and land the IT job you desire.

Research, Research, Research

Research has always been a key component of the job search process because the information you glean about a potential employer is useful for your resume, cover letter and interview. This step has assumed even greater importance now that many companies demand specialized talent. Consider these sources of information:

Internet and media. Tried-and-true methods of learning about a prospective employer include conducting Internet research and regularly reading industry publications, newspapers and business magazines.

Financial statements. Companies that have posted a string of positive revenue reports may be hiring.

Job postings outside of IT. Hiring surges in other departments, such as accounting or sales, could mean additional IT staff will be needed to support those individuals or initiatives.

Current employees. No one is more clued in to a firm's needs than those who already work there. Tap members of your professional network -- including those in local user groups and trade associations -- for news about their places of employment.

While conducting your research, also probe for specifics about the opening. For example, if you're applying for a development position, with which software programs must you be familiar? What certifications are required? How many years of experience is preferred?

Revamp Your Employment Materials

Armed with this knowledge, you can begin to retool your job search materials. Start with your resume. Because employers have very specific needs in mind, your resume must be targeted if you are to be considered for the position. Look closely at your research to determine which openings match your skills, and focus only on those.

Firms today want to see a well-documented account of previous experience in a certain area and, even more so, bottom-line contributions you made that benefited your former employer. For example, did you decrease response time for end-user requests? Were you able to implement server upgrades under deadline? Did your development costs come in under budget? Include these points in your resume and be prepared to discuss them in depth during the interview.

Highlight a few of your accomplishments in your cover letter and describe how this experience will benefit prospective employers. If you were part of a team that supported 1,000 users, for instance, point out that your history in a large corporate setting can benefit another firm as it expands.

Continue Your Training

To increase your marketability for future positions, it's vital that you stay current on emerging trends and technologies. Focus on a single specialty -- such as Oracle database management -- and establish yourself as an expert in the field. To further your specialization, consider mastering a complementary subject as well. A network engineer, for example, will find that being able to identify and prevent security breaches can greatly increase his career opportunities.

Attend user group meetings or enroll in continuing education courses to learn about new developments within your specialty. You might also contemplate giving your time to a nonprofit that can benefit from your expertise.

As the economy continues to build momentum, more businesses will hire skilled professionals to meet growing IT needs. Take advantage of the upturn and position yourself for a new role by researching opportunities that match your skills, targeting your employment materials to specific openings and continuing your training and education.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis for initiatives ranging from Web development and multiplatform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Lee has been with the company since 1995 and has more than 15 years of experience in IT consulting services. She is a spokesperson, author of industry articles and frequent public speaker on IT staffing.

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