How to survive the recruitment drought

Are you out of work, rapidly spending your last pay check and wondering what the heck to do next? Well, now might be the time to consider that Tibetan retreat you've been mulling over, because the international job market is not looking good.

Inboxes in recruitment firms around the world are filling up with resumes from people looking for work, but the agencies aren't getting many calls from employers any more. U.S.-based online recruitment site Monster.com is receiving an average of 24,000 resumes a day and has a total of 13.7 million resumes online, according to Jeff Taylor, Monster.com founder and chief executive officer. This time last year, it had 6.5 million, he said.

Taylor described the job market as having "come back into balance" with a "more naturalized buyer/seller relationship." Where once there were 100 job seekers to every 100 jobs, there are now 1000 people looking for those jobs, he said.

The people contacting agencies at the moment are not those with the "hottest skills," said Russell Clements, deputy chief executive of U.K. IT recruitment company S3 Group Ltd. "The people that swell the ranks don't tend to be the people the market wants; there's a skew between what's wanted and what's available," he said.

Internationally, database developers, NT support and systems administration staff are finding themselves out of work, recruiters say, as are management and executive staff who haven't worked "hands on" for some time -- and of course contractors, who are usually among the first to be cut back.

But, said Clements, "the underlying trend in salaries is still up," reflecting the need to pay good money for the right people. "It's when we start to see a decrease in salaries that you know there are more people unemployed with the needed skills."

There is still mobility in salaries for people getting promotions, for managers moving to directorships and directors to vice presidents, said Taylor. And while existing stock options might not be worth much now, it's a great time to get in on the ground floor with new options in a company.

Many people think it's a bad time to be moving and so they are willing to take less money for what they feel is a secure job, he said. "There's movement back towards traditional companies and the implied stability they can deliver," he said.

It's not all bad news, however, and there are countries where many skills are still in demand. In Germany, for example, the skill shortage is so acute that the government has announced it will grant "green card" work permits to bring in skilled staff from overseas. The country is especially short of programmers, software developers and IT security specialists.

So what sort of training should people do to help find work? Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on the important skills .

Oracle database and C++ programming "will always be in demand," says Clements, while both Tom Morgan, vice president of recruiting operations at Pencom Systems Inc. in New York, and Steve Cotton, a senior consultant with Reed Technology Group PLC in the U.K., agree that C++ and Java are the skills to have.

However, Morgan's colleague Jim Robinson, vice president of Pencom's New England operations, said that "the market has changed unbelievably for Java people." There just aren't that many positions for Java now, he said. Java programmers were in demand regardless of experience 18 to 24 months ago but now "you'd better have EJB (Enterprise JavaBeans), J2EE (Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition) and specific deliverables to cite, as well as middleware experience -- Weblogic, Websphere, CORBA -- if you want to find a job," said Robinson.

Monster.com is still seeing demand for C++, classic software developers and Oracle database developers, said Taylor, and there is strong activity in the health care and biotech industries. "Don't be discouraged by lack of experience in the industry," he said, because young industries are more open to taking candidates from other industries.

In New Zealand, experience with any of the Microsoft suite of programming tools -- VB (Visual Basic), SQL Server, ASP (Active Server Pages) and XML (Extensible Markup Language) will help you find new work, said Rachel Heathcote, a consultant with Candle IT&T Recruitment Ltd., based in Auckland, New Zealand. Formal analysis tools such as Erwin and Visio are also useful, she said.

"In New Zealand there's a glut of NT support and admin type people," she said. "I have been advising candidates to try to differentiate themselves -- for instance, it will be useful in the future for NT administrators to have database skills such as SQL Server."

Security, being on everyone's minds at the moment, is another strong growth market. "Anything touching on security is going to grow," said Christelle Boissonnet, a recruitment specialist at French systems integrator CS Communication & Systèmes SA. Also, she said, "we are still looking for people with experience of embedded software, real-time software, and telecommunications protocols, and also for engineers with sales experience too."

Security and storage are strong areas, said Morgan. "Technologies that help to keep us healthy, protect our businesses and cut down our need to travel are all going to see growth." He, too, says that IT professionals in "the biotech and health care space," as well as in energy and commodities, will be in demand.

It is still hard to find highly experienced Microsoft developers and technical test analysts in New Zealand, said Heathcote, and there are roles for people with experience in specific industries like insurance. "There is still some movement. State-owned enterprises, government bodies, health authorities and councils are relatively unaffected," she said.

"The key is flexibility," said Heathcote. "This is not necessarily going to be the time to hold out for your dream job." The aforementioned Tibetan retreat was Heathcote's suggestion, "if that's something you're interested in and can afford! Or the other option is to look at retraining or enhancing your current skills."

Taylor's advice for job seekers is to be aware that where it used to take a few weeks to find a job, things have changed and it's not uncommon for a job search to take five or six months.

If you've received a big severance check, take three weeks off. A smaller severance? Take two weeks off. Don't look for a job in that time, but use the time to clear your head. Then when you start looking, spend as much time as you would at work. If you used to work 60 hours, spend 60 hours looking for a job, he said.

And keep in mind the basics: turn up knowing about the company and wearing your best clothes, said Taylor. Even for hard core techies, everything about your presentation matters, so why take a chance?

Another suggestion: "Network like crazy," said Robinson, of Pencom. "Talk to everyone you've ever known who knows your work and thinks highly of you. And meet their friends." Make sure your resume points to the projects that got results instead of just listing technologies, he said. Technical people without business sense and social skills are probably having a tough time, but "great technical people with good people skills will always find work."

Both Heathcote and Robinson naturally point to the benefits of using recruitment agencies instead of sending out resumes directly. "Using the scattergun approach with your CV is not likely to work," said Heathcote. "In New Zealand it's best to develop a good relationship with two or three consultants that you trust and then apply for specifically suitable roles," she said.

You need to differentiate yourself in this market, said Robinson and "working with a headhunter who has good contacts is important to make sure your resume doesn't get tossed."

Don't get too despondent, though. "It really is very quiet," said Cotton, of Reed Technology, "but it will be a very short-term thing." While IT projects have been put on hold, they will go forward, he said. "We'll just have a short-term period of stagnation before they go ahead.

"I think if you look ahead you'll see a second e-business boom and an increase in the telecoms market," he said. He estimates it will take eight to 10 months before the market begins to turn around.

And if you have mainstream but useful skills, you will still get interviews even in the current market, said Clements. "You might end up with only three interviews, instead of the 10 you'd have got before. But there's enough demand. We're not in meltdown yet."

(Tom Krazit in Boston and Peter Sayer in Paris contributed to this story.)

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