The IT economy vs. the rest of the economy

Count yourself lucky to work in tech. But with no light at the end of the economic tunnel, it pays to keep your skills sharp

As the market reacts to the S&P downgrade of the U.S. credit rating (more help from the folks who gave a AAA rating to toxic mortgage-backed securities -- thanks, guys), the entire world is holding its breath at the prospect of a double dip.

So far, the tech sector has escaped the worst privations of the Great Recession. It's the polar opposite of the dot-com bust a decade ago; instead of leading the plunge, tech has been doing considerably better than the economy as a whole.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "The 6 hottest new jobs in IT" and "IT jobs: Winners and losers in the cloud era." | For insightful career counseling, read Bob Lewis's blog and newsletter. ]

First-quarter growth for the U.S. economy overall was an abysmal 1.8 percent. But in July, IDC raised its 2011 U.S. outlook for IT spending to a 7 percent increase over 2010 -- with 37.5 percent growth expected in worldwide smartphone sales. And while U.S. unemployment refuses to dip below 9 percent, unemployment in the technology sector remains well below 5 percent.

Here's another interesting metric: PricewaterhouseCoopers reports that Q2 2011 venture capital investments returned to a level not seen since Q2 2008. The leading sector was software, with 254 deals amounting to $1.5 billion.

Of course, you can also find clouds on the horizon. The CompTIA IT Industry Business Confidence Index posted in July fell two points due to macroeconomic concerns. "An element of fatigue has set in with regard to the overall economy, and people are less confident about the future," said Tim Herbert, vice president of research for CompTIA. "Everyone wants to be optimistic, but the economy continues to tread water, which affects forward-looking expectations."

Then there's the recent Cisco layoff of 6,500 workers, although most analysts feel this was due to strategic missteps rather than a reflection of the overall tech economy. Same, in spades, for the RIM layoffs.

Either way, we live in highly uncertain times, so those of us who work in tech need to be more agile than ever and follow the trends. For example, app dev jobs that demand skills in the hot scripting languages Ruby, Python, JavaScript, and PHP are on the rise, but garden-variety sys admin jobs will decline as cloud technologies permeate the data center. And getting an IT job in health care -- the fastest-growing industry of all, with a mandate to automate -- seems like a pretty good bet, while many government IT jobs will be eliminated as budget cuts sink in.

As things stand, the supply of qualified job applicants isn't keeping up with demand. According to the tech jobs site Dice.com, IT jobs are taking longer to fill because people with the right skills just aren't available. (For a good overview of what employers are looking for, see one of InfoWorld's most popular recent articles, "The 6 hottest new jobs in IT.")

Not that changing the course of your career to match what employers want is easy. I was struck by a comment from a reader with the user name "oldpro" who replied to a recent post of mine on IT jobs: "All of this advice to retrain while you are working is great for 20-something gamers living at home -- not so great for 50-something people with kids in college and high school."

I happen to fall in that same demographic, so I have the utmost sympathy for what oldpro is saying. Nonetheless, you've gotta do what you've gotta do. As Michael Dell told us in a recent interview, "This is an industry that changes really, really fast and you have to be very flexible, you have to be very agile, and you have to really love change. And if you don't love change ... it's probably not the right industry for you."

That advice goes double when the outlook is as uncertain as it is today. We're fortunate to work in an industry that serves as the world's biggest engine of growth. To survive chaotic times like these, even those gainfully employed should keep an eye on the opportunities.

This article, "The IT economy vs. the rest of the economy," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog, and for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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