The first half of 2003 has been a great time for employers and tough for IT staff. Right now it’s very much a buyers' market, with employers able to ask for, and get, more highly skilled and experienced IT people than ever before.
But if you're in the right place with the right skills, there's still work to be had.
So what are those skills? According to recruitment agencies, server-side and web-related technologies such as SQL Server, Java, C++ and XML are - as you would expect with the growth in web-based systems - in high demand.
Consultants also report growing interest among employers in Microsoft’s .net technologies and its new C# object-oriented development environment, though 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 the SAP environment. "SAP skills are still pretty sought-after and command quite a high salary. Though what employers really want is people who have worked on SAP projects before," comments Nigel Sterndale of CWJobs.
With databases at the heart of most business applications, IT staff with good database skills and experience continue to be sought after too.
SQL Server and Oracle are the two obvious key technologies here, but according to Tony Davis, resource manager at Key People, employers are looking for people with solid 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 comes out," he says.
Other skills that continue to be sought after are networking and network security.
Experience is critical
Just as the crucial success factor for a restaurant is location, location, location, when you are looking for IT jobs the key thing is experience, experience, experience. Employers want evidence that you have been able to put your skills to work on real-life projects.
So 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 taking you in a totally new direction.
"Even if you retrain, you still need that commercial experience to back it up," says Davis. "Frankly, at the moment, to spend thousands on retraining with no guarantee of a permanent job at the end of it would be a waste of money."
Iain Simmons, regional director for recruitment consultancy Elan, agrees that what employers really want is "people with guru-level experience".
The reality, though, is that for emerging technologies they are unlikely to be able to meet this requirement even in the current employers' market. "As with Java when it first came out, there are currently very few people who have two or three years’ experience of .net technologies," he says.
If you already have Visual Basic skills, for example, then moving to .net is a relatively small step. "In that kind of situation, we find that employers are prepared to pay for people who've invested in high-quality training with a reputed training organisation," Simmons says.
Don't be put off the public sector
Supposing you’ve got the skills, what industry sectors should you be looking at? Many of the traditional boom sectors have been quiet for some time now. But public sector organisations, aloof from the vagaries of the stock market, are fairly recession-proof.
And the good news is that at the moment, as a result of the UK e-government initiative 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 Monster, job-seekers need to get over their prejudice about working in the public sector. "These organisations aren't 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 to fill it in, and post it back," he says.
"But there is a quid pro quo; the public sector does offer a security blanket and, depending on their funding, organisations may 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 key drivers for outsourcing are to improve service quality and reduce cost, which means that at the moment the outsourcing sector generally is a good place to be," says Matthew Rodger business development director with recruitment consultancy Alexander Mann.
Apart from that, the retail, distribution and wholesale sector has been bearing up quite well, though the slow 2002 Christmas season for many high-street shops suggests that the good times could be coming to an end. Road congestion and interest in alternatives to car travel mean that the transport sector is also taking on more IT staff.
Looking for a change of scenery?
Are you considering a move to another part of the country in search of work? If you are already in the south, recruitment consultants advise you to stay put. The South East is still the most fruitful area for IT jobs, accounting for two-thirds of all vacancies on the Monster site. As well as London itself, the M4 corridor - home of the UK divisions of Microsoft and Oracle - is a good source of IT jobs.
However, a number of large, stable employers in the North West and North East make these areas worth considering, particularly given the much lower cost of living the regions enjoy.
"The North West has been quite buoyant, with IT work coming from pharmaceuticals companies and large financial organisations such as the Co-op Bank," says Simmons, who is Elan’s North West regional director. "We haven't seen the boom and bust some other areas have seen. It’s a much steadier market."
Monster reckons the region accounts for 20% of jobs in its database.
Despite a generally depressed economy, the North East has pockets of high IT employment such as the Department for Works and Pensions and the Inland Revenue in Newcastle upon Tyne.
And a number of large software companies based in the Midlands make it the fifth largest source of IT jobs, according to recruitment agencies.
There is no doubt about it: now is a difficult time for IT job. But hold on to the thought that the hard times will not last forever. "There's still an underlying IT skills shortage, and when the economy picks up, the top skills will be in demand again," says Sterndale.
And, according to Slavin, "IT people are still the most coveted members of staff, and IT jobs are the most advertised sector on Monster, accounting for 25%-30% of our postings. True, the job market isn't what it once was - but it will come back."
Top five hottest IT skills
- SQL Server
Top five industry sectors to be in
- Local and central government
Top five areas to find IT jobs
- M4 corridor
- North West
- North East