Opinion: Bright spots for tech in a dark economic picture

There are certain skills that no recession or economic downturn can eliminate the need for

An increasing number of studies and reports are emerging that boast of the strength of the IT profession and indicate job opportunities will only continue to grow as we move into the next decade.

In July, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the seventh consecutive month of negative job growth. More than 51,000 jobs were slashed. Although not as severe as the loss of 72,000 jobs that was predicted, this cut still brought the total number of US unemployed to 8.8 million — 5.7% of the population. That’s 1.6 million more than in the same month last year and constitutes a four-year high.

But, although the overall job market continued to worsen in the second and third quarters, employment in the IT sector is not nearly so bleak. In fact, according to the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses, IT employment is on the rise.

This year, businesses have added close to 90,000 IT professionals to their rosters — a gain that stands in stark contrast to the US job market as a whole, which had cut a total of 463,000 jobs by the end of Q2. What’s more, in June the number of IT pros employed in the US reached an all-time high of close to four million.

Wages in the IT sector are holding steady too. The latest Yoh Index of Technology Wages found that pay remained stable throughout the second quarter and even finished up slightly ahead (0.29%) compared with June of last year. It’s not robust growth, but it’s also not the black hole everyone has been predicting.

So, why is the tech jobs market not suffering as much as the employment market as a whole? To start with, the economy’s current struggles are different from those earlier in the decade, when overvalued tech stocks caused the bubble to burst, sending many technology companies — and the economy — tumbling. This time, the slowdown was sparked by the subprime mortgage crisis, putting contractors and real estate moguls — not techies — at greatest risk.

Second, there are certain skills that business simply can’t live without — skills that no recession or economic downturn can eliminate the need for. In fact, in many cases, the workers who possess such skills become even more valuable during an economic slump or recession, because they are integral to keeping the company afloat and moving forward.

For example, regardless of the status of the economy, there will always be a demand for tech workers involved in R&D or product development, since they create or enhance a company’s product line.

It’s all about relationships

Another area where companies need to maintain a steady supply of talent is in customer relationship management (CRM). Maintaining good relationships with customers is integral to a company’s success, especially when a slumping economy is prompting consumers and businesses to curb spending.

A recession is no time to be losing customers — and gaining new ones can be difficult. The last thing a business wants or needs is for its customers to become dissatisfied and jump ship for a competitor.

That said, highly skilled tech workers are needed to maintain the CRM software and programming that companies such as SAP have made available. And there’s currently a shortage of these workers. For example, the demand for SAP talent currently outweighs the supply by more than 30,000 workers. Recruiters simply cannot find people to fill these roles fast enough.

In today’s slowdown, many businesses are retaining their high-tech talent, and looking to hire and to expand their technology budgets. According to the last bi-monthly CDW IT Monitor, 25% of medium-sized businesses are planning to hire more IT workers. What’s more, the number of these companies expected to increase IT budgets reached 64%, an increase of 10 percentage points since April.

Growing in the middle

A recent report from the Computing Technology Industry Association also found that companies in the middle market (those with 100 to 1,000 employees) are looking to bring in new technology talent to take their businesses to the next level of technical sophistication.

Many of these companies, which post yearly revenues of US$50 million to US$2 billion, are holding strong and even operating in growth mode through the economic downturn. Businesses in this range often have a different perspective to smaller or larger companies, both of which may experience the effects of economic turmoil more directly or severely.

Many medium-sized companies are not publicly held, which means management can run the business without worrying about the effect on company stock or investor sentiment. In addition, cuts in IT spending are not nearly as dramatic as they are elsewhere in the economy. Companies are willing to invest more in the hope of emerging from the downturn ahead of competitors.

CompTIA also found that 60% of medium-sized companies are looking to beef up their supply of networking talent; 57% are planning to hire tech experts in security, and 48% want to increase the number of staffers with skills in non-specific server technology.

Companies know that to stay competitive and ensure that they can survive beyond the economic downturn they need to stay on top of the latest technological advances. This is particularly true when it comes to security.

Fraudsters and cyber-thieves are increasingly adept at stealing sensitive information. In cases where thieves are successful, businesses can suffer financially, in addition to losing customer trust — a loss that can have severe consequences.

In the end, employees who can create value, reduce costs, enhance product development and improve the customer experience will always be in demand, even as the economy struggles.

Lanzalotto is vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh Services.

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