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In aching economy, IT job market still healthy

The IT job market isn't exactly booming, but it's a better bet for college grads than other industries.

Job growth in the IT market is holding steady as the economy shakes backward. And though salary growth has slowed in the past year, industry employment surveys show that IT remains a good career bet.

That should be heartening for new college graduates looking to enter the field at a time when the financial industry and others are being hit by the country's poor economy.

"What we're seeing is a very active [IT] market," said Tom Silver, senior vice president of marketing and customer support at Dice Holdings Inc. in New York. "It still has employment rates that are much better than overall rates."

Silver said unemployment in IT is at about 3%, compared with 5% in the national job market overall.

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Dice Holdings, which runs IT employment listing site, found that salaries for new IT employees dropped just more than 2% in 2007, down to an average of about $41,500. But IT salaries overall improved slightly, about 1.7%, continuing a steady, if unremarkable climb over the past five years.

And the number of CIOs hiring for their department is holding firm. A quarterly survey conducted by IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology found 14% of IT departments planning to add staff this quarter. That number has stayed relatively consistent over the past two years. About 2% of IT departments planned to shrink their staff. That, too, matches earlier surveys.

"We're still seeing a number of markets where there's still some demand or shortages for highly skilled IT professionals," said Chris Ferguson, a vice president at Robert Half.

But highly skilled is the keyword for those graduating and making their way through college. Both Silver and Ferguson said making it to four years of class won't be enough. CIOs aren't taking new employees on a degree basis alone. They want to see significant work experience. Co-ops, internships and certifications are all central to being the chosen one, Ferguson said.

"Can they step in and have an immediate impact?" he asked rhetorically.

That experience is especially needed for the skills that are most in demand -- network administration, Windows administration, desktop support and database management, according to the Robert Half survey of CIOs.

Silver said he sees the most demand for what he termed the "harder-core programming" positions, those for people with a background in Java, C and C++.

On top of that, he said, some work experience is necessary, as it's the only way for a graduate to show an ability to adapt as IT technology evolves.

"Can [new graduates] step in and have an immediate impact?"
Chris Ferguson
vice presidentRobert Half Technology

Silver also said CIOs will be looking for so-called "soft skills" like good communication and a willingness to learn and adapt in the business world. They will also be looking specifically for "maturity" when interviewing undergraduates.

Nick Garbidakis, CIO at the nonprofit American Bible Society in New York, said he looks for experience when hiring candidates, but it doesn't necessarily have to be from a college internship.

"Many of them might not have done anything on a job," Garbidakis said. "When I got my first IT job, most of my IT know-how that I could show was my personal Web stuff, personal programming that I had done for my own purposes."

Garbidakis said he also looks for soft skills, including "how customer oriented they are" when hiring for his 20-person IT staff.

A "decent work ethic" is also a must, he said. Any show of responsibility will do there, "even if they have worked at a gas station."

Things look to improve for graduates in the coming years. Silver said he expects the IT job market to remain strong and Ferguson said spots will open as the baby boomer generation begins to retire.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Zach Church, News Writer

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