Hiring gets sane

The High-Tech hiring forecast for the next three months is either partly sunny or partly cloudy

          The High-Tech hiring forecast for the next three months is either partly sunny or partly cloudy. It all depends on the window you're looking through.

          Talk to IT managers, and they say they're increasing their head count in the first half of this year, hiring business analysts, project managers and developers. Companies as diverse as See's Candies Inc, Republic Mortgage Insurance Co (RMIC), Hallmark Cards Inc and Aflac Inc have new Web-enabled development projects and are still tweaking their recruiting strategies to find the right mix of skills.

          Even dot-coms are hiring. Honolulu-based click-and-brick travel service Cheap Tickets Inc and Digital River Inc, a Web development and hosting firm in Minneapolis, are two that plan to expand their staffs this year.

          But while IT organizations are hiring, job availability varies widely. At the seven companies contacted for this article, planned staff increases range from nil to 24 percent, representing fewer than 70 newly created positions. And hiring in the dot-com sector is by no means a given, especially in New York's Silicon Alley. CarDay Inc, for example, will try to get by this year with only six IT staffers.

          So talk to IT job seekers who are victims of the gloomy dot-com weather, and they will tell you that getting off unemployment is taking far longer than they expected.

          Without a doubt, the balance of power in IT recruiting is shifting; it's looking increasingly like an employer's market. More candidates seem to be available, IT hiring managers say. And companies are typically filling open positions in six weeks to three months.

          Additionally, the once elusive candidate with leading-edge Web skills who had eyes only for dot-coms is now more interested in longevity.

          "The economic climate is affecting our recruiting efforts in two ways," says Deron Streitenberger, CIO at RMIC in Winston-Salem, NC. "The candidates that would be on the market regardless are seeking more job security, plus several local organizations have downsized, introducing some excellent candidates into the market that would not have been there otherwise. We've found it easier to acquire new people than it's been in a long time, and . . . at salaries that make sense."

          In fact, Streitenberger had slated 16 new positions for the first half of this year, and he filled the majority of them before the end of December. By early March, RMIC's IT department was "only a couple of positions away from being where we wanted to be at the end of Q1," he says.

          Managers at large IT organizations say they have appealing sales pitches in the current IT job market, which is populated by disillusioned dot-commers, midyear college grads, independent contractors looking for more stability in a softening market and IT professionals seeking a change.

          "We're like the antidote to life in a dot-com," says Greg Gibbons, MIS director at South San Francisco-based See's Candies, founded in 1921. He's had no trouble soliciting résumés for two development positions. "We retain people a long time, we grow regularly and we're highly profitable. And we have plenty of e-commerce projects going on."

          A mix of stability and Web-based projects has been a compelling message for Kansas City, Mo.-based Hallmark as well, says Julie Salmon, IT human resources director. She's filling 25 open IT positions in approximately half the time it took last year. Moreover, she says, she's losing fewer recruits to competing job offers. "Even with a 24-hour turnaround, last year, a candidate often wasn't available anymore," Salmon says. "Now we don't see them disappearing off the job market so quickly. There's less pressure."

          But even though IT hiring is easier, it's not effortless. With a seemingly universal push to implement Web-enabled customer relationship management applications tied to data warehouses and Web-based customer service tools, many companies are seeking candidates with the same skills. These include business analysts and project managers with strong communication skills and developers with Java, Visual Basic, Microsoft ASP, Oracle and ColdFusion skills.

          Consequently, although widespread layoffs have alleviated some of the urgency, IT organizations aren't slacking off on retooling and refining their recruiting strategies.

          Aflac, for example, has abandoned a strategy of partnering with a local college on an IT boot-camp program. The goal of the partnership was to develop candidates with tailor-made skills, notes Jennifer Pitts, vice president and director of IT at the Atlanta-based insurance firm. "That didn't produce the [level of] quality required to meet our business needs," she explains.

          Instead, Aflac has launched a national recruiting plan to go after more experienced candidates. The company is hosting job fairs in major cities, working with technical recruiting firms, posting jobs online and hitting college campuses. In its outreach, it's leveraging a newfound name recognition created by its TV commercials featuring a duck and its appearance on several "Best Places" lists, including Computerworld's 2000 "Best Places to Work in IT."

          Because the company is targeting experienced IT professionals instead of entry-level job seekers, Pitts says, the company has retooled its compensation package as well, scaling up base salaries and throwing in signing bonuses.

          "I still think the market is really tight," Pitts says. "But we've seen candidates wanting a more stable, traditional firm, so our attraction has increased."

          But don't dismiss the appeal of dot-coms just yet. Paul Halstead, chief technology officer at Cheap Tickets, says his company's biggest barrier to recruiting is its island location. The company brings approximately 60 percent of its new hires over from the mainland. Still, "the fact that we are not purely an online company helps [with recruiting]," Halstead says.

          Leslie Jaye Goff (lgoff@ix.netcom.com) is a freelance writer in New York.

          Tale of a Dot-Goner

          Jesse Martinez (a pseudonym), a Web site producer, moved to New York in March 2000, lured by the bright lights, big-city promise of Silicon Alley. One year later, the lights aren't just dim; it's one big rolling blackout.

          Martinez last spoke to Computerworld in October, when her dot-com employer was quietly letting people go; at that time, she planned to start looking for a new job before she, too, became a dot-goner.

          Two months later, Martinez was applying for unemployment after her flailing company's planned merger with a white knight went sour. Although she had never started interviewing and it was the holiday season, she was nevertheless optimistic about her prospects for employment. "I thought I'd have a job by the end of January," she says.

          By March, she said she was hoping to have a new position by May, and she'd lowered her salary expectations by about 10%.

          The online job-hunting channels she'd used to great success in March 2000 had all but dried up this quarter. She'd scored only about 10 on-site job interviews in three months. In one phone screening with a small Internet development firm, the interviewer told her that he'd received 800 résumés for a single opening for a project manager.

          Now, Martinez is weighing other options, placing less emphasis on applying for dot-com jobs and more on researching stable companies.

          "It's not like Web project management is my calling in life," she explains. "On the one hand, I had thought of it as my 'in' to New York and this industry. In my mind, I was taking a 'safe' route — making good money, on the management track, improving my tech skills. Even though I knew intellectually that no career is guaranteed anymore, the past few weeks have brought it home."

          — Leslie Jaye Goff

          What a Difference a Year Makes

          Julie Salmon, IT human resources director at Hallmark, says it's easier and cheaper to hire IT workers this year than it was last year. The company, which employs 700 IT professionals, isn't offering lower salaries, but it has lowered the cost of the total hiring package.

          2000

          Amount of time required to fill IT positions: Four months

          Signing bonus required? Definitely. "We also had to offer some incentives to supplement our corporate bonus programs."

          Stock options requested? Always. "We're privately held, so we don't offer stock options, [and] there were people who wouldn't even talk to us because of that."

          Vacation benefits offered: "Sometimes we threw in extra vacation time."

          Relocation benefits requested: "We had some pretty extraordinary demands, but our response was, 'Thanks for sharing.'"

          2001

          Amount of time required to fill IT positions: Two months

          Signing bonus required? Sometimes. "We've seen about a 30 percent reduction in the number of signing bonuses we offer. We're able to attract people without them."

          Stock options requested? No. "Now, they don't even ask."

          Vacation benefits offered: Standard.

          Relocation benefits requested: Nothing unusual

          — Leslie Jaye Goff

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