Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Schizophrenic Job Market

Let’s face it. The culture of the computer professional world in the last three decades of the Twentieth Century was a perfect fit for the introvert (like me). It emphasized truthful analysis and perfection at the expense of sociability. There was a culture that you could make good money forever as an individual contributor, avoid management and sales cultures, and live your own life without social pressures; the job had no public implications. And it provided open entry. There was an unusual need for people who could fill these positions, starting with the Cold War buildup even in the late 50s, which was translating to general commercial use by the late 60s.

This all remained pretty much intact until after Y2K. We called the network of positions and people “The Business.” There were dips, to be sure, especially in the late 1980s when hostile takeovers and sudden mergers eliminated many IT departments and applications were merged. But the mergers in the 90s were different, however, as data tended to be merged at the user presentation layer rather than in the legacy applications themselves. In the 90s we heard about “the War for Talent.” The explosion of the Internet and the Y2K crunch kept the job market artificially elevated until just after the 2000 New Year. We all know what happened: financial scandals, the bursting of the Internet bubble, and 9/11. Broadband allowed companies to send routine programming and maintenance, even production support, jobs overseas, for much lower labor costs.

Today recruiters regularly call me about specific items in my resume, most commonly my Medicaid MMIS experience in the late 1970s. (That is telling, because what I learned from checking numbers from my MARS nursing home reports then predicted the demographic eldercare crisis we have today.) Many of the jobs are “W-2” contracts, less than a year, in which the associate is paid an hourly rate and is expected to pay his or her own temporary housing expenses out of that (it raises some tax questions, too). It usually turns out that the client wants a very specific list of skills, often hard to find; otherwise the client will find plenty of people in its own geographic area.

Recruiters often work for staffing firms that present themselves as providing technical staff to client companies needing specific skill sets. However a candidate is almost never hired until requested by a specific client for a specific job. There are cases where the candidate becomes a salaried employee of the staffing company with benefits, and can be "on the bench" and paid between assignments, but this is not as common as it was in the 80s and 90s. Recruiting companies could become more efficient by communicating more honestly to candidates what clients really need, rather than hiring based on such short-term needs.

In the year 2000, I attempted to make the “switch” from “mainframe” to “client server” in a support environment where I would have to pick up a lot of skills OJT but apply them in a very superficial way. This turned out to be a mistake. I had thought that there would be value in combining mainframe with client server, but my exposure was just too superficial. I would have done better staying in mainframe and concentrating, say, of DB2 technical expertise.

So one of the lessons is: specialize. College and graduate students have the opportunity to work with their professors and guidance counselors and figure out specifically what skills employers want. (Security is a biggie. So is portability.)They should do so. But we have to go beyond the Geek and get to the Beauty.

Employers today are also likely to look for a track record of upward progression and advancement, and commitment to the field. In the late 1980s, middle management was not the place to be; it was the grunts who “did the work” whose jobs were safer, particularly if they had the mainstream skills. Today, it is different. Employers want to see evidence of leadership and socialization.

One issue that comes into consideration is project management. At one time this was viewed by some people as an area for those who were less “geeky.” Project management became a discipline itself, with its own sophisticated software and certification tests. But today’s biggest challenges and job opportunities may come for people who can get different companies and other entities like advocacy organizations and governments to wok together. There are bigtime problems resolving legal issues associated with the way people use new technology that will require companies to work together in unprecedented fashion.

Another is a bad word: sales. Vendors are looking for technically versed sales professionals. That has a negative connotation for many techies, who feel that their lives become Faustian bargains of letting an employer take over their public identities. Understood. But times are differently changing.

Older professionals or persons who have "retired" will need to define themselves carefully, and base their strategies on what they have to offer as unique individuals based on a large mixture of lifetime experience. They generally won't match the narrow qualification lists on jobs boards that are more appropriate for younger people.

Dr. Phil McGraw asid on bis NBC show, “Winners do things losers don’t want to do” and that seems to apply to the job market!


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