IT Job Market: Uncertainty Rules

Recent reports show IT employment is healthier than ever: The U.S. IT workforce topped 4 million for the first time this spring, according to government data.

But hordes of American IT workers find the news hard to reconcile with their own day-to-day experiences. When we broke the employment report story, a swarm of employed and unemployed IT pros sounded off in response, forcefully claiming that the numbers mask the realities of the job market. Highly qualified American IT workers contend that they can’t find gainful employment in the United States, while foreign workers–holding the oft-controversial H-1B visas–seem to be doing just fine.

CIOs are under pressure to run their shops like businesses within businesses. By paring down overhead and finding cheaper labor elsewhere, some business-technology leaders are doing just that. That’s good news for the CIOs, because it shows that they can toe the bottom line like other executives. But it doesn’t provide heartening news to unemployed IT workers.

And the truth is that the woes of American IT workers may well be just beginning. The global business landscape is morphing by the day. Globalization is no longer about American businesses colonizing the third world.

Just ask Hal Sirkin, co-author of Globality: Competing With Everyone From Everywhere for Everything. In it, he details how all those countries your company used to outsource IT work to are giving birth to a new breed of global competitors.

Or read our interview with Harvard professor F. Warren McFarlan, who sees huge ramifications for IT in the rise of China.

The long-term impact on U.S. IT workers is tough to predict, but the trends seem to foreshadow increased investment by American companies in those emerging markets. In an age of cost-cutting and productivity maximizing, more and more work traditionally done on U.S. soil will shift overseas. Indeed, 72 percent of CIOs and other IT executives responding to our 2008 Future of IT survey see offshore outsourcing growing faster than domestic outsourcing over the next five years.

As business expands overseas, even U.S. IT services firms, like outsourcers and consultancies, will look for workers abroad, too. Employment in that sector has steadily risen, up 4.1 percent in the past year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released in July. To compete in emerging markets, those firms will continue to look for top managers, and also for experts in those markets. That will exclude a very high percentage of U.S.-based IT pros.

Another major–though less-mentioned–factor in the IT employment climate is the uncertain economy. Those of the optimistic persuasion may be hoping that an economic uptick will lead to more hiring, and that’s reasonable. But in an uncertain and rather volatile climate, it’s tough to put your chips on anything at this point.

So what’s an out-of-work IT worker to do? Many of the more fortunate (read: employed) IT pros urge the unemployed to sharpen their skills and evolve in their professions. Of course, that’s easier said than done–and much easier to do when you’re employed by a firm that devotes resources to educating its staffers. Others, even those gainfully employed, recommend that IT workers get out of the industry altogether. That’s not advice that was well-received. But, while stinging, it may show a good grasp on the reality of the labor market ahead.

The future for many IT workers is highly uncertain, no matter how positive the government statistics may make things look.

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