Surprise! Tech is a safe career choice today

Despite the real issues IT pros have with their jobs, they're better off than with most other professions

The once rock-steady tech job has been battered by ferocious waves lately: a dot-com bust, offshoring, outsourcing, H-1B replacements, cost-cutting, and now layoffs resulting from the global economic crisis. Weary tech veterans also lament tough working conditions, citing everything from ridiculously excessive hours to ignorant managers to zero opportunities for advancement. So it's no surprise that very few college-bound teenagers dream of toiling their lives away in a cubicle staring at a computer screen.

Yet, in the current tough U.S. job market, a tech career is actually one of the safest ones to have. Tech is still a good profession with decent pay and relatively solid job security. "The reality is there's still a very healthy job sector in information technology," says Mehran Sahami, an associate professor of computer sciences at Stanford University.

[ Learn more about how the financial crisis is affecting IT and the high-tech industry, plus what IT can do to help, in InfoWorld's special report. ]

Tech's poor image, though, continues to blind young people from seeing the bright side. Tapping America's Potential, a coalition of businesses working toward doubling the number of students earning bachelor's degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM areas, reported last summer that it's already falling behind in that goal after only three years.

"If more people were aware of how strong the demand is in computing, I think there would be a healthier pipeline of students," Sahami says. But "there's been a little too much hype around offshoring and outsourcing, which has scared some people away."

The situation is becoming so dire that the National Science Foundation began shifting its focus from research to swaying high school students toward STEM. "That's an absolute fact," says Roger Norton, dean of the School of Computer Science and Mathematics at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "There truly will be a major shortage, in terms of graduating students in areas of computers and technology, to meet the needs of the companies out there."

Before the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, colleges enjoyed record enrollment in their computer science and other IT-related programs. But in the years following the bust, colleges across the nation reported that enrollments had fallen by 50 percent. Enthusiasm about a future tech career hit an all-time low about five years ago during the peak of the offshore outsourcing uproar.

Worse, this downward spiral is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. The skills shortage lies at the heart of the H-1B controversy, which in turn discourages more young people from joining the tech ranks. For example, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has argued that the United States is not graduating enough science and engineering majors to fill the future tech workforce needs, which is why he has lobbied Congress to increase the number of H-1B visas issued to fill in the gap with foreign workers.

College kids march slowly toward tech careers
There's hope that today's teenagers are rethinking the tech-job stereotype. Lately, enrollment in college STEM programs has seen an uptick. Stanford computer science grads are recruited heavily by Silicon Valley tech companies willing to pay top dollar, so it's not surprising that Stanford is seeing an increase in student interest in computing-related studies. But STEM grads from other colleges are doing just fine, too. For instance, Marist College has seen enrollment rise at both of its tech-focused programs, computer science and information technology and systems (ITS).

Whereas computer science grads often become software developers, ITS grads choose from a range of IT topics such as networking, e-commerce, systems analysis, project management, security, and database systems. "Our ITS students are probably more highly sought after than the straight computer science students," says Marist College's Norton. "ITS students, especially those with enterprise computing in their résumés, will get a half-dozen job offers."

Colleges are doing their part to attract more students. Marist College, for instance, is bringing down interesting technology courses, such as artificial intelligence and social networking, from the upper levels to the freshmen class. These courses will market technology at a time when students are deciding what to do with their lives.

Meanwhile, Stanford rolled out a new computer sciences curriculum last fall that's chock-full of courses linking technology with other fields of study. In computational biology, for instance, technologists work with biologists to figure out how computers can better analyze data from experiments. "There's a real social aspect," says Sahami. "There's an image problem in computer science right now that all you do is sit in a cube and program all day."

San Jose State University in California offers three majors for students in tech: computer science in the College of Science, management information systems in the College of Business, and industrial technology in the College of Engineering. "Enrollment has been very stable," says Susan Rockwell, assistant director at San Jose State University's career center. "We're seeing in the career center and with employers coming to our job fairs that there's still lots of interest in our graduates."

Despite layoffs, tech jobs are still pretty stable
The truth is that tech jobs continually beat the national unemployment average, offering a sign of stability in a tumultuous job market. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it was a very tough overall job market late last year: The average national unemployment rate for the fourth quarter rose to 6.1 percent (with a December high of 7.2 percent). Still, tech workers posted some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country:
* Computer software engineers: 1.9 percent
* Computer support specialists: 2.2 percent
* Computer and information systems managers: 2.7 percent
* Computer scientists and systems analysts: 3 percent
* Network and computer systems administrators: 3.5 percent
* Network systems and data communications analysts: 3.6 percent
* Database administrators: 5.4 percent
* Computer programmers: 6.1 percent

The tech sector actually added more jobs during one of these months, compared to the vast majority of employment sectors that lost jobs.

Salaries among tech workers remain surprisingly strong. A survey of 19,000 tech workers conducted by Dice, a career site for technology and engineering professionals, showed a spike in salaries late last year with the recession in full throttle: a 4.6 percent increase in average pay from the previous year to $78,035. (However, a recent survey of 22,550 IT professionals by Foote Partners found IT skills pay slipped for the first time since 2004.)

The salary news is good for college grads, too. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that the average salary offer made to computer and information sciences graduates was up from $51,992 for the class of 2007 to $58,677 for the class of 2008, a 12.9 percent increase. The average salary for computer engineering graduates increased 7.8 percent to $60,280.

Nevertheless, young people remain skeptical of pursuing a tech career when they hear about slashed IT budgets and layoffs. Will money really be available with shrinking IT budgets? The reality is that IT resources aren't going away. Gartner surveyed more than 1,500 CIOs through December 2008 to find out how they're rising to the financial challenges of 2009. The key finding is that IT budgets largely will remain flat, although resources may be shifted around.

An IT career is better than most, but still has risks
Talk of job stability and decent salary does little to comfort the laid-off tech worker. And there are many of them out there. No doubt they're telling young people to stay away from miserable tech careers -- unfortunately, there's some truth to their words.

Layoffs are common even in the tech sector. Earlier this month, Microsoft said it will slash up to 5,000 jobs over the next 18 months. Intel said it will cut up to 6,000 manufacturing jobs. Wall Street tech workers were laid off during the financial crisis. Such public harbingers rightfully add to young peoples' fears.

Many tech workers continue to be laid off when big projects they're working on get cut. The Gartner survey showed that when long-term projects are on the chopping block, their resources reallocated to short-term projects. While the Gartner survey didn't ask about staff reductions, IT staff represents about a third of the budget -- "and, in some regards, it's the easiest part to change," says analyst Mark McDonald.

Even though the tech job market is better than most, competition for jobs today is also heating up. "Up until the second half of last year, our business did pretty well," says Dave Willmer, executive director at staffing firm Robert Half Technology. Although he remains bullish on the tech career, especially given a looming talent shortage, Willmer admits, "we've got more people applying for fewer jobs today."

For people in those jobs already, many speak of desperation. One tech consultant in finance said top-tier tech workers on Wall Street were forced to take lesser jobs elsewhere, which amounted to a 40 percent pay cut. Grumblings among the tech ranks is getting louder. They complain about ignorant manager wielding the threat of layoffs like a whip, and veteran peers being forced out and replaced by less-capable and cheaper foreign workers.

Wanna future in tech? Play it smart
All of these issues and more await some future tech workers. But there are ways to hedge your bets and avoid some of these woeful situations. Not all tech jobs are created equal, so you'll want to position yourself in favor of the trends -- that is, seek out hot IT jobs, as well as recession-proof ones.

Some IT projects are being cut in favor of other ones, and so it's good to know what's hot and what's not. Foote Partners survey found "urgent demand for talent" in three technical areas: management/methodology/process, database, and messaging/communication. The areas to avoid: application development, SAP and other enterprise applications, operating systems, Web and e-commerce, and systems networking.

Gartner's McDonald agrees that companies are focusing on tuning internal processes with quick returns on investment while shunning big projects. Many CIOs are concentrating on only a couple of projects per quarter that deliver results quickly, such as retiring old systems, consolidating duplicate CRM or reporting systems, and changing the cost structure within IT processes.

Offshoring and outsourcing have led to many tech workers losing their jobs, but there are ways to plan an IT career around them -- that is, you'll want to outsource-proof your career. Marist College's Norton regularly fields questions from parents of students concerned about the threat of offshoring. Norton admits offshoring poses a real risk to rank-and-file computer programmers, but not so much to high-level ones.

"I always tell my computer scientists, 'Don't become simply a low-level programmer, you need to become a software engineer,'" Norton says. The thinking goes that vanilla programming can be done anywhere in the world, but the world comes to the smartest software engineers. Indeed, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported computer programmers had one of the highest unemployment rates (6.1 percent) among tech workers, yet computer software engineers had one of the lowest rates (1.9 percent).

It used to be true that tech workers could stave off offshoring and outsourcing because their jobs centered on managing and supporting a physical IT infrastructure. In other words, they had to be onsite. But times are changing. "The difficulty with these [onsite] positions is that there's a lot of visa-based resources that are also qualified or overqualified for these positions, and many of them can be done remotely," says Jeff Gaines, lecturer of management information systems in the college of business at San Jose State University.

Gaines advises his students to aim higher than the typical technical fare and target jobs such as project management, process design, system definition and design, and quality assurance. "Business analysis and systems analysis jobs are really the target," Gaines says. "Because our students have a business degree, which includes a background in IT concepts, they are suited to work in the IT or business side."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.