Situation wanted

Whether downsized, or victims of the "dotbomb" era, many IT professionals are still out of work — but some say jobs are returning.

By: Melinda Sherwood
   In the 1990s, if you knew a little about computers, you could write your own ticket at any number of businesses.
   Today, however, even the most highly skilled information technology professionals are finding their expertise a hard sell.
   Rich Cirincione, a wide area network analyst from Hamilton, has had hardly a bite on his resume since he lost his job with global IT services company EDS nine months ago.
   "For the first six months, I didn’t get a single interview," said Mr. Cirincione, 40, who regularly attends Jobseekers meetings at Trinity Church in Princeton, where a majority of attendees are downsized IT workers and refugees from the "dotbomb" era.
   But things may be looking up — Mr. Cirincione says he’s been on two interviews in the past month.
   "People are actually interviewing people," he said. "I don’t know if they’re actually hiring, but they’re interviewing, so hopefully there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — not an oncoming train."
   With more and more IT jobs being exported to countries like India, however, some see an oncoming train — headed right for the nation’s skilled workforce.
   Forrester Research, a technology research firm in Cambridge, Mass., predicted as many as 3.3 million American white-collar jobs will go overseas by 2015.
   A survey conducted in 2003 by the Information Technology Association of America, a group that promotes the growth of the IT industry, found that 22 percent of large IT companies have already moved work offshore and expect to send more jobs overseas in the near future. Programming and software engineering positions, followed closely by network design and Web development jobs, were among the jobs cited as most vulnerable.
   The outsourcing trend has, in turn, led to an outcry among public officials, who see white-collar jobs eventually going the way of American manufacturing jobs. State Senator Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence) even introduced a bill in 2002 that would limit state-funded contracts to employing only U.S. citizens or legal residents.
   Joseph Seneca, a Rutgers professor and chairman of the New Jersey Council of Economic Advisers, believes such protectionist legislation could hurt businesses and the country, however. "Ultimately, (protectionist policy) has to be counterproductive because it invites retaliation," he said.
   It’s also a distraction from what should be the ultimate goal of the country’s research institutions and businesses — "to continue to develop, implement and disseminate new technologies, new products, new even higher-end technologies."
   "That’s where we’ve been strong and that’s where we need to put the savings from outsourcing and the high-productivity gains," he said. "That will ultimately generate jobs."
   The increasingly competitive global environment has also forced universities and technical institutes to look closely at how their degree programs address the changing demands of industry.
   "We will see a decline in traditional computing programs and an increase in evolving, more applied-type programs," said Dr. Fadi Deek, an information technology professor and acting dean at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where enrollment has dropped 10 percent in the past two years.
   "If certain types of jobs are now being outsourced, and these are the kinds of jobs a degree program prepares you for, students will avoid it," he said.
   Things like (Web) design and development, for example, can be outsourced easier than other functions, like network security, he said.
   "The jobs with the highest demand here are on the hardware side — local area network administration, where an individual is required to be on site and resolve problems on a day-to-day basis," said Gregory Mass, director of career service at NJIT. "Those are the individuals that will retain their value and be at less risk" of losing their jobs to offshore outsourcing, he said.
   Like many IT professionals, Mr. Cirincione has taken professional development into his own hands.
   In September, he spent $700 on a course on firewalls, and recently enrolled in a four-month, $7,000 course at New Brunswick’s Amtech to become a Cisco Certified Network Analyst. He is also taking Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer course at Absolute Training Center in Trenton, for which the state is picking up the $4,000 tab.
   All told, he’s spent between $10,000 to $12,000 to upgrade his skills.
   But he thinks the Cisco certification will be his trump card.
   "Many years ago the (Cisco) certification was something that no one had, but there’s so many people who are out there now, and with the dotcom failures and the Enrons you have all these experts out there competing for entry-level positions," he said. "By adding that certification, I’ll be able to at least have somebody be interested in my resume."
   Despite the offshore outsourcing trend, computer-related occupations still remain among the fastest growing occupations nationally and in the state.
   The New Jersey Department of Labor forecasts significant growth for the IT industry overall, anticipating a 65-percent increase in IT jobs in the state by 2006. The DOL predicted 13,900 new computer support specialist jobs will be added to the state economy between 2000 and 2010. Network administration jobs are also expected to grow rapidly (see chart, at right).
   With the war on terrorism and increasing concerns about security, the federal government is also spending record amounts for IT work.
   And while business investment in new technology contracted in 2001 and 2002, there are signs of a rebound.
   Last year, investment expenditures by businesses in new technology equipment and software rose 5.2 percent, said Professor Seneca. "That’s an encouraging sign, obviously for the producers of software," he said, "but it means more software is being put out there by businesses, and that’s going to generate the demand for people to service and use it."
   Joe Allegra, a general partner at Edison Venture Fund of Lawrenceville, also sees the situation improving, albeit slowly. "The Merrily Lynches, the Goldman Sachs — their activity is picking up as a sector. They’re buying more technology and implementing initiatives."
   NJIT’s director of career services also sees more companies hiring. "We’re starting to see a greater increase in job postings in the career services center," said Mr. Mass. "We had 20 more employers attend our job fair in the fall, so there’s more on-campus recruiting.
   "I am fairly certain … that at the very least we’ve bottomed out — we’ve reached the lowest point in terms of job reduction, in terms of organizations no longer hiring," he continued.
   But that’s little consolation for IT workers like Mr. Cirincione, who has expanded his job search into four states and is competing for entry-level jobs for $60,000 a year. "Which means I’m looking at about a $15,000 pay cut just to get a job — and being happy about that," he said.
   "For me seven months of unemployment, is like shock," he continued. "I haven’t had an interview in 15 years. It just boggles the mind."