The best companies, the prime locations and the hottest skills on the market.
The first half of 2003 was good for employers and tough for IT staff. Right now it is very much a buyers' market, with employers able to ask for and get more highly skilled and experienced IT people than ever before.
So what skills are employers looking for? According to recruitment agencies, server-side and web-related technologies such as SQL Server, Java, C++ and XML are in high demand.
Consultants also report a growing interest among employers in Microsoft .net technologies and its new C# object-oriented development environment, although many projects using these technologies are still at the concept stage.
Another fast-growing area of demand is in enterprise resource planning systems and, in particular, solid experience of SAP. "SAP skills are still sought after and command quite a high salary. What employers really want is people who have worked on SAP projects before," said Nigel Sterndale of CWJobs.
With databases at the heart of most business applications, IT staff with good database skills and experience also continue to be sought after.
SQL Server and Oracle are the two most obvious sought after technologies, but according to Tony Davis, resource manager at Key People, employers are also looking for people with experience of older databases such as Ingres and DB2.
"A lot of companies are still using legacy systems and many suppliers will only support certain products until the newer version is released," he said.
Other skills that continue to be sought are networking and network security.
Experience is critical
Just as the crucial success factor for a restaurant is location, location, location, the critical factor in IT is experience, experience, experience. Employers want evidence you have used your skills on real-life projects.
If your CV is short on the hot skills, is it worth considering investing in training at your own expense? It depends how you go about it, say the consultants. It could be worth paying for training if it complements and updates your existing skill set, rather than retraining in other technologies.
"Even if you retrain, you still need commercial experience to back it up," said Davis. "At the moment, to spend thousands on retraining with no guarantee of a job at the end would be a waste of money."
Iain Simmons, regional director for the North West at recruitment consultancy Elan, said what employers really want is "people with guru-level experience".
The reality is that for emerging technologies, employees are unlikely to be able to meet the requirements. "As with Java when it first came out, there are currently very few people who have two or three years' experience of .net technologies," Simmons said.
If you already have Visual Basic skills, moving to .net is a relatively small step. "In that kind of situation, we find employers are prepared to pay for people who have invested in high-quality training with a reputable training organisation," he said.
Do not ignore the public sector
Supposing you do have the skills, what industry sectors should you be looking at? Many of the traditional boom sectors have been quiet for some time, but public sector organisations, away from the vagaries of the stock market, are fairly recession-proof.
The good news is that at the moment, as a result of the UK e-government initiatives and government investment in the health service, the public sector may be offering more cutting-edge IT work than many private sector employers.
According to Joe Slavin of recruitment website Monster, job seekers need to get over their prejudice about working in the public sector. "These organisations are not offering great bonuses and stock options, and salaries are lower than IT people have been used to.
"The final insult is that to apply online, you often have to download a PDF application form, print it out, put it in a typewriter, fill it in and post it back," he said.
"But there is a quid pro quo; the public sector does offer a security blanket and, depending on funding, some organisations will be working with the latest technology."
When IT directors are under pressure to cut budgets, they often look to offloading IT services as a way of controlling costs. Consequently, outsourcing companies are another potential source of IT jobs in a downturn.
"The drives for outsourcing are improving service quality and reducing costs, meaning that at the moment the outsourcing sector is generally a good place to be," said Matthew Rodger, business development director with recruitment consultancy Alexander Mann.
The retail, distribution and wholesale sector has also been bearing up quite well, although the slow 2002 Christmas season for many high street shops suggests the good times could be coming to an end. Road congestion and interest in alternatives to car travel mean the transport sector is also taking on more IT staff.
Need a change of scenery?
Are you considering moving to another part of the country to look for work? If you already live in the South, recruitment consultants advise you to stay put. The South East is still the most fruitful area for IT jobs, and accounts for 33% of all vacancies on the Monster website. London and the M4 corridor - home of UK divisions of Microsoft and Oracle - are good locations to source IT jobs.
However, a number of large, stable employers in the North West and North East mean these areas are also worth considering, particularly given the much lower cost of living. The region accounts for 20% of jobs in the Monster database.
"The North West has been quite buoyant, with IT work coming from pharmaceuticals companies and large financial organisations such as the Co-op Bank," said Simmons, who is Elan's North West regional director. "We have not seen the boom and bust other areas have seen and it is a much steadier market."
Despite a generally depressed economy, the North East has pockets of high IT employment such as at the Department for Works and Pensions and the Inland Revenue in Newcastle upon Tyne.
There are also a number of large software companies in the Midlands, making it the fifth largest source of IT jobs.
There is no doubt that we are in difficult times, but hold on to the thought that they will not last forever. "There is still an underlying IT skills shortage, and when the economy picks up, the top skills will be in demand again," said Sterndale.
Slavin said, "IT people are still the most coveted members of staff, and IT jobs are the most advertised sector on the Monster website, accounting for 25% to 30% of postings. The job market is not what it once was, but it will come back."
Hottest IT skills
- SQL Server
- Local and central government
- M4 corridor
- North West
- North East
Source: CW Jobs