IT workers may have been tempted to switch to any other field -- other than banking, that is -- following a stream of depressing surveys that gloomily predict shrinking IT budgets and shrinking career opportunities.
However, hiring and placement firms who specialize in IT are feeling upbeat about the market. "IT has become different from sales or finance," says John Challenger, CEO of recruitment firm Challenger, Gray, and Christmas. "It's a core area that every company needs."
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He does see the IT sector as volatile and likely to suffer from a decrease in capital investment -- a prediction echoed by consulting firms such as Gartner and Forrester Research -- but companies will still want to optimize their existing systems and will still be hiring with an eye toward that goal.
"When you look at what we see -- job postings and companies trying to match jobs to candidates -- IT is winning the day right now," says Barry Lawrence, a career expert at the recruiting site JobFox.
Recession-proof tech jobs
Lawrence's company recently published a list of recession-proof job positions, and IT positions dominated. Among the seemingly recession-proof areas: software design and development, networking and systems administration, software implementation analysis, testing and QA, and database administration.
Jennifer Mauney, a vice president at Robert Half Technology, identified several areas where her company is seeing a lot of opportunity. These include:
Virtualization: The technology is largely perceived as a cost-cutting measure, so IT managers facing smaller budgets will be looking at it more. "We're not really seeing a slowdown in that space," she says.
VoIP and wireless technologies: VoIP is perceived as another IT measure where a modest initial outlay will produce a strong ROI, so Mauney expects that sector to stay strong. It is also, Mauney says, ripe for anyone who's on the project management track in IT. "For those who are experienced, there's opportunity to get into the wireless space."
Systems upgrade and maintenance: "Those [areas] require strong help desk or desktop talent, and what we're seeing are jobs that require a combination of those skills," Mauney says.
Data warehousing and data analysis: Anyone who can work with data and build industry-specific reports is in demand, Mauney says. "We're seeing a technical side and a functional side where [candidates] understand the business facets of the reports."
It helps to go in-house
Lawrence says that lower-level IT skills may be outsourced, but the higher-level IT positions will remain in-house. Keeping them in-house is cheaper for employers than hiring consultants, and keeping them in-house makes it easier to hire from within -- often a less expensive proposition than finding an outside candidate.
He adds that anyone looking for an in-house IT position would do well to consider whether the job provides any hands-on training or experience in new technologies. For the foreseeable future, such training and experience is the most likely way employees can pick up new job skills without paying for them; however due to shrinking IT budgets, Lawrence said, employers are not as willing to pay for employee classes. "You better take care of your training, because your employer's not in a position to do it."
Challenger says that the strongest hiring areas are likely to be in-house too: "Companies are keeping spending down, but they have to maintain and utilize all the systems [they already have]. The core areas like networking administration, tech support, and database management will continue to be strong."
Do not underestimate the nontechnical skills
Work on what are often called the "soft skills," such as user interaction, dealing with difficult people, and working well in a team environment. "A lot of companies are putting emphasis on these skills because they know tech skills can be picked up through training," Mauney notes.
Lawrence concurs: "You've got to have people inside your building who not only know the technology, they know how to make it work with people." In fact, he says that many companies are reconsidering outsourcing because the interpersonal skills that are part of nearly every IT job are better found in-house.
Your last option: Wait it out
Although the perception among job-hunters may be that there's a dearth of IT opportunities, recruiters say they have the opposite problem: There's a looming talent shortfall. Mauney says that two factors will contribute to a contraction in the available IT workforce: Baby Boomers will leave the workforce, and there aren't enough young workers in IT-friendly curricula coming out of school in time to replace the retiring workers.
Lawrence concurs: "Do the math. There are 76 million Baby Boomers who are going to leave the marketplace. Behind them are 44 million Gen-Xers. The numbers just don't add up." Although more Baby Boomers will stay in the workplace longer, either in full-time or part-time capacities, it won't take the pressure off the IT workplace, he adds.