Further Hints of a Spring Thaw

By Don Willmott

There was a rainbow on the cover of The Economist last week. So… crisis over. Let’s all get back to work. If only it were that simple. Still, as memories of a particularly bleak jobwinter begin to melt away, one can’t help but note a fresh breeze of optimism blowing across the scape.

Spring ThawAmong the leading indicators was the encouraging news on Friday that the economy created 162,000 jobs in March, a three-year high. The Department of Labor usually cautions us not to make too much of any one monthly report, but this one certainly gained a lot of attention, especially in Washington, where anything resembling one of those clichéd “green shoots” is celebrated. “It’s a good, solid report,” noted Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

I was also cheered by Forbes magazine’s annual Fast Tech 25, a ranking of the fastest-growing tech-related companies. The article pointed out that while the S&P was up 23 percent last year, the Nasdaq 100 Technology Sector index increased by an impressive 80 percent, indicating that technology is among the sectors that will lead the way as we climb out of this economic trough. Looking at the companies that made the list and the services and products they provide, you can spot some of the trends that we often talk about here at Dice. What’s hot at the hottest companies? Cloud computing, off-site data storage, on-demand application delivery, data protection, and optimization. Any skill you have that can help bring new efficiencies to an IT infrastructure is a skill that’s going to be in demand. It’s advice we keep repeating because it’s a trend we keep seeing.

In fact, here are the buzzwords that appear on the home page of Riverbed Technology, the company that ranked number two on the Forbes list: WAN optimization solutions, application acceleration, IT consolidation, enterprise-wide network and application visibility. Efficiency indeed.

And here’s another leading indicator that I couldn’t help but notice: the refreshingly optimistic local market reports for Minneapolis and Phoenix that Dice recently posted. In Minneapolis, one recruiter saw 10 to 15 percent growth in job orders from January to February. In Phoenix, a recruiter said that more than a few of her candidates had received offers for either contract work or permanent positions. “Employee confidence is coming back,” she said. Boy is that nice to hear. Having researched local IT employment trends in many major metro areas for Dice over the past couple of years, I can testify to the fact that it’s been awfully hard to dig up nuggets of good news.

Before we all join hands and dance around the maypole, however, it’s important to remind ourselves of a few harsh realities. Anyone who works in IT on a contract basis is sure to report that the quality of contracts has suffered badly in this downturn whether we’re talking in terms of rates, lengths, or renewals. We also have to remember that unemployment numbers don’t count the legions of  “underemployed” workers, part-timers who want to be full-timers (contractors often fall into this group) or anyone who is overqualified for his or her position.

So what’s the right career strategy for a moment like this? It’s funny to note that there’s plenty of advice out there for “job hunting in a recession” but none for “job hunting in a recovery.” My instincts tell me one of the best ways to take advantage of this incipient turn of the tide is simply to reactivate and re-energize your personal network of contacts with the simple question, “Hey, what’s going on?” Are new projects underway? Are budgets for new infrastructure being written where your colleagues work? Are consultants showing up again? After all, you don’t have to wait for the Department of Labor to tell you what’s going on. You can find out just by asking your friends.

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