The Anti-Lileks Speaks

As a rule, I don’t read Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch because I find him droll, uninformed, and pointless. But I couldn’t resist today’s offering because it deals with my industry: Computer field leaves veterans out in the cold:

Twenty-five or so years ago, a lot of really smart, forward-thinking people studied computer science. These were people who recognized that computers were going to change the way the world does business. But revolutions have a way of turning on their own, and this one has been no exception. Many of those smart, forward-thinking people are now out of work, increasingly desperate, their careers in shambles.

Cue the violins.

One is a woman with a master’s degree in information management. She has been out of work for almost three years. She gave up job hunting last summer because it’s just too depressing. She told me she sent out more than 300 resumes and got only a handful of interviews. She is approaching 50.

“Older workers are finding themselves shut out of the I.T. market,” she told me.

Must be ageism. Except:

I got some insight from a fellow I visited this week. He, too, is out of work, but he is still looking. He graduated from college about 20 years ago. Early on, the job market was terrific. Everybody needed computer people. A few years ago, though, there was a seismic shift in the job market. Everybody still needed information technology, but instead of hiring the I.T. workers as permanent employees, businesses hired them as contract employees. They were hired for specific projects. Remember the Y2K panic? Those were good days for computer people. Still, the shift to contract work was ominous for two reasons.

First, you couldn’t settle in with a company. You had to be constantly rehired, and each time you had to be rehired, you were competing with younger people, competitors who were not only willing to work for less but whose knowledge was more current.

For instance, the fellow I visited this week told me the computer language of his day was COBOL. Apparently, that is as out of date as Sanskrit. Oh sure, he has gone to night school and tried to learn the hot new languages like Java and JavaScript, but companies want people with work experience in the new skills – exceptions made for recent grads – and how can you get experience if you can’t get hired?

Not a lot of work out there for blacksmiths these days, either, but undoubtedly that’s an upcoming Bill McClellan column.

The second problem with contract work is outsourcing. So many computer jobs go to India these days. Recently, we were having a problem with a computer at home, and my wife called for help. She spoke with a young man in New Delhi.

I mentioned outsourcing to the fellow I visited, and he said it isn’t just outsourcing. American companies bring Indian workers to this country, he said.

This was clearly a difficult subject for him. He’s an educated man, and he did not want to appear xenophobic. I don’t blame the Indians for taking advantage of opportunity, he said. But still, it’s difficult to know that our jobs are going to foreigners, and we can’t find work, he said. All the big companies are doing it, he said.

Those violins crescendo.

The fellow I visited has worked for a number of the big companies here – Angelica, Anheuser-Busch, BJC – and he’s had a pretty good run of it. In his last job, which lasted five years, he made $70,000 a year, and he got benefits, too, because he works through a consulting firm, kind of a high-end Manpower place. But now he’s out of work. He’s got house payments and a child in high school. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do.

Come on, McClellan, you’re not spinning any fresh cobwebs here. You know, if you’re going to try to make it through a career in the IT industry, you’re going to have to keep your skills up to date, mostly on your own, as you zig-zag through a number of positions. Contract work does suck, but within those contracts, you have to take whatever opportunity you have to expand your skill set on your own. Or just don’t do contract work for a consulting company.

If you’re a good worker, smart and skilled, you should have a network of people who’ll keep you up on job opportunities and shouldn’t have trouble finding work. Unfortunately, whenever I read these people, I see a parade of Dilbertian Wallies, looking for jobs where they can punch the clock and collect exhorbitant paychecks for forty years and then retire with a pension, or at least a healthy 401K, and that’s just not going to happen any more.

You’ve got to fend for yourself, and keep yourself fresh. Hop jobs, don’t incur too much debt, and don’t plan on your income remaining the same or growing perpetually. Start your own company if you have to. COBOL Commandoes. You’d certainly have that niche market covered.

Or you could become a newspaper columnist for the Post-Dispatch. Apparently, there you can stagnate and keep getting paid for it.

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