The Woes of the Unemployed IT Professional

By Deborah Perelman  |  Posted 10-26-2007
Countless stories from former technology workers saying they couldn't get back on their feet after a professional setback or layoff illustrate a lack of resilience in the IT field, experts say.

In an anonymous blog entry, a former U.S. technology worker, programmer and system analyst wrote that after more than 20 years of work on large-scale IBM systems and databases he is "functionally unemployed at the age of 50." The writer calls himself "almost unemployable."

This entry is just one of the many stories told by lifelong technology professionals that are unemployed or underemployed or have been forced to work in other fields as their jobs disappeared.

In few areas are job skills more perishable than IT, it would seem. "Depending on the area that an engineer [is in] or [the] technology that they are in, being out of a job for six months or a year can be the equivalent of a career death threat," says Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research.

Even people holding IT jobs are not much better off in terms of their future prospects.

The fluid state of the employment market has discouraged many employers from providing enough on-the-job training and retraining, says Ron Hira, assistant professor of Public Policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of a report just issued by the nonprofit Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology.

"Companies are less willing to pay for training and professionals' development," Hira says. "In the past, they expected that you'd be with the company for a long time, so they'd be willing to pay tuition reimbursement or for other training. Now, employers, rationally, don't think they'll be getting the return on that investment, so they're not offering it. They know that the worker may jump ship, or they might lay them off."

Skills, Needs Don't Always Match

This disconnect between employee skills and employer needs also explains why employers keep talking about the need for more H-1B visas, offshoring and outsourcing of IT jobs because of talent shortages. "Why is it that people aren't going into these fields?" Hira asks. "Money is surely a motivating factor. The money hasn't been increasing, and if you're looking at wages, that's not enough. Risk has increased, too. If you look at the IT sector and look at risk and reward together, it may not be adding up"

One attempt to address this imbalance is the Trade Adjustment Assistance bill, introduced in the Senate this summer, which would give IT workers extended unemployment benefits if they lose a job to foreign trade. When the original law was instituted in the 1960s, services workers weren't included because they were a small part of the economy, and there was not much international activity in the sector. This bill would bring that law into the 21st century.

But that's just a Band-Aid, and experts like Hira say they believe the long-term answer will be more about job training and retraining.