The slippery slope

There are now more people chasing fewer and, probably lower-paid IT positions. But is a step back down the career the answer?

There are now more people chasing fewer and, probably lower-paid IT positions. But is a step back down the career the answer?

Moving from one job to another is no longer the easy transition it once was. In the current climate most ITers are staying put and hoping that if they keep their heads down they can avoid joining the redundancy list. But this option is not open to everyone as many have already been laid off and finding work in a shrinking market has forced them to make some difficult choices.

Relocation, retraining and even lower salaries may be realities for those desperate to return to the job market. Contractors have fared particularly badly and for some the era of earning £500 a day is already history.

So what can an ambitious ITer expect from today's job market? There are plenty who remember the recession of the early 1990s and the negative impact it had on their career aspirations.

Graham Steel was working as a software engineer for Unisys when the whole plant was closed down. He had to accept a 12% pay cut in his next job. "This was mainly due to the economic cycle. There was a big recession in 1992, with lots of companies cutting staff or not taking new staff on," he says. "However, my skill set was also a factor. I regret spending eight years in my first job since graduation as my experience with proprietary systems was not readily transferable."

The same applies today and those with the more marketable skills will have fewer problems. ITers with skills like Websphere and Unix are among those who have remained relatively untouched by the recent downward trend. Others are not so fortunate.

"Project managers and business analysts who were earning £500 to £600 a day are being asked to provide the same service for as little as £300 per day," says Kevin Price, director of recruitment agency Times Resources. "Some of them are eating humble pie and accepting these rates rather than be out of work."

Others are having to reconsider their skill set and consider a step down the career ladder. According to Price it is not unusual for project managers and business analysts who are desperate for work to return to programming.

He estimates that even permanent salaries have dropped by 22%. The permanent IT market is now flooded with out-of-work contractors looking for financial security. They are, however, encountering difficulties making the transition.

"Companies think [contractors] are just weathering the storm and will jump ship as soon as the climate improves," says Adam Sztuka, director of Spider-iT Recruitment.

Even former permanent staff who are willing to take a pay cut can struggle to convince employers they genuinely want a job.

"Companies prefer people who won't be taking a pay cut as they won't be accepting the job grudgingly," says Sztuka. "People's living expenses are proportional to what they earn." So they are caught in the classic Catch-22 situation where there are not enough jobs at the level and salary they want but companies are reluctant to take them on at lower levels as they don't believe that they will stick around.

Falling pay levels
Peter (not his real name) recently lost his job when the customer relationship management solutions company he was working for closed its training division. He has found that a lot of the IT/technical trainer jobs have disappeared since he last looked and pay levels have dropped compared to a year ago.

"Several times, agents have asked me to lie about my previous salary, telling me to say I was earning £20,000-£25,000, against the reality of £33,500 plus £5,000 car allowance," he says.

"I assume they feel that a drop in salary of a few thousand is acceptable whereas a drop in salary of £15,000 is not."

But sometimes disappointment bites when job hunters are not realistic in their expectations. The IT industry no longer offers the range of opportunities it did a year ago. It is now an employer's market and they are able to expect more for their money.

ITers who are demanding the same rates as they were earning a year ago are spending long periods out of work. Most are begrudgingly accepting a lower-paid job as this is better than no job at all.

"A lot of people were getting paid a lot of money compared to market rates," says Ainsley Soffe from recruitment agency CP Direct. "Those people seem more affected than the ones who have been paid at market value."

Recruitment agencies have also undergone dramatic changes. Not so long ago most focused between 80% and 90% of their business on contractors whereas today it is more common for 70% to 80% of their work to be in the permanent sector.

Working overseas

ITers looking to improve their prospects are considering working abroad. Price says, "There is always a buoyant market somewhere. Rates are currently high in the Middle East and are tax free, although people are reluctant to go there at the moment."

Of course not everyone views a cut in salary as a step backwards. Mike Stone gave up a highly-paid job as an analyst/programmer on an airline logistics application in Germany to return to the UK. He found work in local government earning almost two-thirds less than he had before. But he was far from disillusioned.

"I joined an organisation in transition, I was able to use my current skills, but keen to evaluate and migrate to new geographical information system technology, including Oracle," he says. "In other words I was able to work on interesting applications and acquire marketable mainstream skills."

Taking a pay cut or a lower level position does not mean that a career is irretrievably damaged. Potential employers and colleagues are all too aware of the situation and are unlikely to stigmatise anyone who has had to change down to a lower gear.

But the most important factor is for people to be happy with the decision they have had to make. Sztuka recently placed someone from an IT blue-chip background who willingly took a 50% pay cut just so he could work closer to home and be able to spend more time with his family.

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