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E-Business: MEETING THE TECHNOLOGY CHALLENGE

After the Famine, a Feast of Tech Talent for Employers

A shift in the job market has turned the tables and given workers a reality check on their dot-com dreams and demands.

April 02, 2001|JULIE BENNETT | SPECIAL TO THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Technology hiring has undergone a sea change. Just a few months ago employers complained about a drought of information-technology candidates. Now, in the aftermath of dot-com failures and corporate layoffs, the marketplace is flooded with unemployed technology workers.

"It's very much an employer's market," said Ilya Talman, president of Roy Talman & Associates, a Chicago recruiting firm that specializes in information technology.

Finding talent in this climate is "tons easier," said Rob Williams, chief architect for ClickAction, a Los Angeles software company. Williams, who has been hiring computer programmers regularly since July, said his last recruiting round was "unbelievable."

"We're hiring people we couldn't have come near a year ago," he said.

The makeup of ClickAction's work force also is changing. Before, to acquire the hottest skills, Williams had to hire computer cowboys, independent contractors who commanded wages of $75 to $125 an hour.

"Now I'm telling recruiters not to send me any contractors," he said. "I'm only hiring full-time programmers with six to seven years of experience."

The pay scale for technical workers has also shifted in the employer's favor. When the market was tight, dot-com and professional services companies like Internet consulting firms "paid people more than they were worth," Williams said. Now candidates have more realistic expectations.

New ClickAction employee Amy McLaughlin, for example, used to work for Internet highflier Razorfish. Today, the Java developer said she's earning less but is glad to have a job in her field.

Signing bonuses are gone and public companies are reducing the stock options they offer. Car allowances that were once as much as $700 a month have been reduced or eliminated.

Steve Colbourn, products market unit director of recruiting for Accenture, said changes in the market have given job-seekers a reality check on what they can demand.

The Chicago-based consulting company will hire about 4,000 technical people this year, Colbourn said. Many of them will be recent college graduates.

Last year many top graduates shunned traditional consulting companies such as Accenture for the land of dot-com opportunity. This spring, grads are turning to traditional organizations with solid records, he said.

All employers aren't sharing in the bounty, however, because many of them can't afford to hire, a situation that is dramatically affecting the nation's $8.3-billion recruiting industry.

"Three of our top clients are on hiring freezes," said Brett Stevens, president of the Atlanta-based IT recruiting firm SearchLogix Group.

First-quarter revenue at SearchLogix is down 30% from last year's high, and except for calls from laid-off workers, "it's deathly quiet right now," Stevens said.

AIRS, a Hanover, N.H.-based company that provides Internet recruiting training services, recently surveyed its alumni and found that 73% of corporate employers plan to reduce their lists of approved recruiters this year and almost half of all recruiting firms are slashing their staffs and budgets.

Companies that are hiring often find job candidates on their own. Andrew Knott, vice president of marketing for White Rock Networks of Dallas, a telecommunications manufacturer, said the market shift has allowed his company to banish recruiters.

In October, Knott's firm asked employees for referrals in exchange for a chance to win a BMW.

"We received 438 referrals that resulted in 198 interviews and 82 hires, saving us over $2 million in recruiting fees," Knott said.

The BMW convertible cost White Rock $37,000. The campaign was so successful that Knott is ready to try it again.

But other employers, such as Chicago-based Bank One Corp., are turning to outside services to help them sort through the new glut of applicants. Michael Rubino, Bank One's vice president of national desktop services, said he's using Directfit, a technical-staffing company, to find contract workers.

Directfit, with offices in 17 cities, screens technical contractors and provides clients with online videos of the best candidates.

"Directfit narrows the search process, and I can tell by a video clip if someone will be a good fit in our environment," Rubino said.

Despite the newly crowded technical marketplace, all employers cannot count on an easier hiring process, said Mary Ellen Brantley, an Atlanta leadership consultant and coauthor of "Winning the Technology Talent War."

"Unless a company is completely folding, management won't cut their muscle and bone, and will hold on to people with the hottest skills until the very last," Brantley said.

So even though there are plenty of mid-level IT workers on the streets, the market still is tight for workers such as C++ programmers and Unix system administrators.

Technical superstars--those earning more than $150,000 a year in chief information officer and other top positions--also are rare, but they're getting easier to reach.

"Executives who are still working in dot-coms realize their visions of grandeur may never come true and they're willing to talk to us," said Jim McSherry, managing partner of the Midwest practice of recruiter Battalia Winston International.

No matter what the skill level, employers are being more cautious about hiring technical help.

"They're making sure all hires are winners and have drastically increased their scrutiny by checking all references and questioning past employers," said Umesh Ramakrishnan, vice president of executive search firm Christian & Timbers in Cleveland.

Candidates too are being more careful. They're asking for more cash upfront instead of waiting for stock options.

"No one can afford to repeat the mistakes they made last year," Ramakrishnan said.

"Unless a company is completely folding, management won't cut their muscle and bone, and will hold on to people with the hottest skills until the very last."

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