Thursday, September 6, 2007

IT Workers Second-Guess Career Choice

Analysis: In general, IT workers are feeling unsettled about the state of the IT workplace.

Though it has come a long way from the gloom-and-doom days of the dot-com bust, the state of the IT workplace isn't shiny and happy.

If you ask an IT pro what they think of their chosen career path, a surprising number might pause before giving you a litany of reasons that the technology workplace leaves them feeling unsettled.

They love what they do, but they're not sure IT is a great place to be doing it anymore. Even worse, they're not sure that they would encourage their own computer-inclined children to pursue the same line of work.

Fortunately, this isn't the case for everyone. Several reports point to the vigor of the IT job market, the overall health of the U.S. IT sector, the preponderance of bright students in the talent pipeline and soaring salaries in some sub sectors.

Yet, good news can only go so far to undo the damage wrought by some cold, hard IT workplace facts.

No matter how many stories crop up in which CIOs confess "outsourcing didn't work for me," the trend toward the commoditizing of IT and development work, not to mention sending IT overseas to save money, shows little sign of letting up.

Will their jobs be next? IT workers worry everyday. Technology company CEOs predicted that their use of offshore services would increase over the next several years, according to a 2007 CEO Survey released by Deloitte, a Swiss company, on May 1.

Nearly half (45 percent) of the respondents stated that they were currently offshoring and 55 percent said they planned to in the coming years, so much so that nearly one-third expected to have 10 percent of their work force offshore in five years time.

The good news on the offshoring front is a little more difficult to track down, but it mostly involves senators stepping forward to offer protection to victims of the global talent market and coming down on firms that abet companies that disregard protections for U.S. workers.

However, as long as outsourcing lays down onshore and nearshore roots, its not likely that IT professionals will be feeling any extra job security.

Is there a shortage of IT professionals? Is there not? It depends on who you talk to. Yet if you speak to enough people, one message becomes clear: There is a shortage, but it's of workers with the most highly sought-after skill sets. Everyone else is having a harder time finding work.

In a way, there are two IT work forces: those whose salaries and opportunities climb due to head-turning percentiles each year, and those whose skill sets are left behind, and whose heads spin when they read another account of the "vibrant health" of IT.

In the first category, there is a shortage. Companies scramble to find IT workers with SAP skills or project management skills, and end up paying premium prices for them. In the latter category, those having trouble finding work are often not able to find the companies looking for them, which are often small and lack the resources of a big tech HR department. In both categories, the luck of the draw seems to reign supreme.

Any person not living under a rock has watched the writing appear on the wall: Housing prices are falling into a crisis zone; the credit market is collapsing; the Fed even cut the discount rate. It could only be a matter of time before this recession takes its toll on IT workers, a population still scarred from the dot-com bust.

A recession seems to be looming for the U.S. economy this fall, and no matter how many glowing reports about the IT job market are released, the slipping economy will inevitably have its way with IT professionals.

The view isn't much brighter from the top. A report released Aug. 30 by ExecuNet, an executive recruiting firm in Norwalk, Conn., evidenced the dovetailing of confidence in the executive employee market since the spring. The confidence rate is down to 55 percent from 80 percent in April.

As user technology advances by leaps and bounds, logic stands that this would make the jobs of IT professionals easier. In reality, this is not the case: For IT pros, technology advances mean more security risks, more demands on their time and more to worry about.

Driven by the consumerization of technology, the effectiveness of centralized IT has slipped, argued an Aug. 6 report by the Yankee Group, as 50 percent of employees reported that their personal technology was more advanced than their workplace's technology.

The report reasoned that that IT could either ban employee technology, creating an endless game of whack-a-mole, or they could manage both the technology and the rogue employee.

While analysts agreed that the latter had the potential to improve long-term internal customer satisfaction, there is little doubt that IT professionals know that the IT care co-op model is just more work for them.

A July 30 article in the Wall Street Journal on the topic of IT limitations of employee technology took more of a guerrilla warfare approach, providing readers with a how-to manual to make an end-run around the IT department, and painting IT pros as control freaks.

While IT professionals raged against the article, others took a more forward-reaching approach.

This quieter minority reasoned that because users already know how to use Google to find out how to circumvent their technology regulations, smart IT departments should take steps to bridge the gap between what users want and what they knew is safe.

If the dot-com bust was the first nail in the IT work force's coffin and offshore outsourcing the second, the decline in student enrollments in computer science programs and a dearth of qualified candidates may just be the third. Worse yet, many IT professionals admit that they don't feel comfortable ushering their own children down a career path so fraught with land mines.

Recruiters facing difficulties finding the right IT candidate for a job bemoan the fact that after the dot-com boom parents told their kids not to go into technology and haven't changed their message since. Yet the issue runs deeper than parents disregarding that IT may be back and healthier than ever.

"The shine is off the apple," one told eWEEK. "Outsourcing… H-1Bs… the commoditization of the IT workforce. Other career paths seem a safer bet."