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Is IT a dead end? CIOs, workers disagree

Would you tell your child to get into IT? Opinions vary sharply among IT workers, CIOs, educators and headhunters, but they all seem to agree on one thing -- IT skills alone won't cut it.

Ron Milan will be a father for the first time in April. And while his son isn't quite ready for the world yet,...

Ron is already ready with some fatherly advice: Don't get into IT. And if you do it anyway, son, you'd better have a backup plan.

It's the same advice parents have given for years to their children who moved to Hollywood to pursue stardom. Only now that advice seems to apply to IT.

"A lot of us went headfirst into IT in the '90s -- now we don't have a different direction to take. It's hard to backpedal," Milan said.

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Milan, 33, of Hillsborough, N.J., has been looking for full-time work for the past year. A former senior international infrastructure manager, his job was sent overseas, and he's been working part-time ever since.

"I wouldn't recommend it to my son," Milan said. "Anything can change, but I don't see that happening in the near future."

Despite an economy that seems to be rebounding and the end of a presidential campaign that made "outsourcing" a household word, IT workers continue to lose confidence in their industry. According to a November study from staffing firm Hudson Global Resources, the percentage of tech workers who believe their companies will be laying off IT personnel rose to 27%. The previous month, that figure was less than 19%.

A Department of Labor study showing a drop in the unemployment rate among computer and math pros, combined with a drop in the number of people employed in those fields, further suggests that techies are bailing out of the field because they no longer consider IT a viable career path.

"If you told me IT would be this dead a few years ago, I would have said you were crazy," Milan said. "There is no job security because everything changes from month to month."

Sounding off

When asked if they think IT is a career they would recommend to their children, several readers echoed Milan's feelings:

  • I would not and have not steered my kids toward IT. A couple of my friends, long-term IT systems and development people, have gone into Home Depot's management training to become store managers! That says a lot about the tenuous field of IT today.

  • I worked for IBM Learning Services for almost 14 years and was laid off as a result of the downturn in the economy following September 11. From what I have seen in the computer industry, IT jobs are not as attractive as they used to be. I would not advise my own children to seek careers in computer sciences. Fortunately, they both have jobs in more stable careers (medicine and education).

  • IT is an unpromising career for young people. The boom has ended and it is shifting to that of artisan level work. I have studiously steered my son, who is in his first year of college, away from the field.

  • A future in IT? I can't see one. I've been hanging on by threads to any crumbs that may come my way, but it is not paying the bills. I thought that a career in IT as a DBA was my future. I still think IT is a great choice if you live in India, China, Ireland or South Africa. For the U.S., I would tell my daughters that they should take Punjabi as a language in school and learn project management or maybe nursing. I hope I'm wrong, but IT is a dead end.

If you told me a few years ago that IT would be this dead, I would have said you were crazy.
Ron Milan
Former LAN administrator

CIOs disagree

CIOs, however, see things differently. John Pfeiffer, for one, doesn't buy into the belief that IT is an unhealthy career choice.

"I think it's a very exciting career and much more realistic than it was in the boom," he said. "People with core skills, whether software development, network operations or project management, are critical."

Pfeiffer, CIO of Corrections Corporation of America Inc., in Nashville, Tenn., believes that IT went through a phase in the '90s where it was so hot that more people were hired than were needed. What's happening now is the result of a saner, maturing business cycle. His company isn't firing; it's hiring and looking hard for the right people.

"I have some basic consulting positions that pay well that I can't fill," he said.

"I'm not a believer in IT not being a good career choice," agreed Abbe Mulders, CIO of Dow Corning Corp., in Midland, Mich. "IT people have to continually keep current with the changing requirements of the job, including ongoing skills development," she said. "This has been true for the last 25 years in the computing field."

Dan Phillips, vice president of operations, data warehousing, databases, large systems and communications information systems for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said his company works with more than a dozen colleges to recruit and create interest in IT and in Wal-Mart.

According to at least one educator, IT could use some cheerleaders.

Teaching change

Gwinnett Technical College, in Lawrenceville, Ga., had seen fewer students enroll over the last couple of years, possibly due to the negative shadow cast upon IT by laid-off parents or negative press. But according to the school's institutional advancement coordinator, Lorri Christopher, students are coming back, packing some classes and proving that at least some people believe IT is still a viable career. Classes in open source, networking, Web development, database and security are full, she said.

Christopher, who's also on the school's faculty, believes IT is still an attractive career; it's just different these days because changes are happening much more rapidly.

"I tell students that IT is still there as a career, but if you select it, you must be comfortable with constant change and constantly having to update your skills," she said. "We have graduates being hired every day in the field, but companies aren't hiring them for what they know about IT; they're hiring for what they know about the business. They've got to know what to apply IT to."

Some IT job seekers are still stuck in the old mindset and not realizing that the trenches have changed. Where at one time, techies simply took orders and implemented solutions, today they're charged with solving problems and understanding what goes on beyond the technology.

Christopher said that one of her graduates complained that he couldn't find an entry-level programming job. "Those jobs are all being outsourced," she said. "The U.S. is an information economy, and if you want a job, you must be doing something related to information in any field."

I think it's a very exciting career and much more realistic than it was in the dot com boom.
John Pfeiffer
CIOCorrections Corp. of America

Self-fulfilling prophecy?

You wouldn't think IT was a dead end by looking at the number of people who've signed on with Information Technology Staffing Inc., in Grand Junction, Tenn., to find a job. Business is up 40% this year, according to president and CEO Trish Corlew, who counts Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods Inc., AutoZone Inc., and Williams-Sonoma Inc. among her clients. In fact, she has added staff to accommodate the demand.

"There will always be IT jobs in the U.S. People who're in business analysis, project management, systems management, security, and really anyone who faces users are fine," she said. "It's a definite career path; you just can't be a code monkey anymore."

Corlew, who also serves as membership chair of the Society for Information Management chapter in Memphis, believes negative publicity around IT generated in the media and the presidential election has turned the idea that IT is a bad career choice into a self-fulfilling prophecy. A speaker at a recent SIM event said the number of tech graduates has decreased, thanks to rumors of IT's death -- a rumor that's been greatly exaggerated, she said.

"I hate to hear this. If we continue to spout negative information about how IT has gone down the toilet, we won't have a pipeline to fill entry level jobs. Then companies will have to go overseas. We will have fulfilled the prophecy."

Milan, while he's pessimistic about IT, isn't writing it off completely. He still believes it's a career, but only for people who have other options.

"I've stayed optimistic, and I don't regret what I've done up to this point," he said. "The '90s treated me well.

"But if you've got another avenue to go down now, do it. Keep your skills up [to date] and get back in IT when the time is right."

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