Get used to competing for jobs

As high school and college graduation announcements of friends and relatives hit my mailbox this summer, I think about these young people entering their college studies or careers. I take a particular interest in those entering the IT field, as I did myself more than two decades ago, and feel ever so grateful I'm not in their position. Many will find out the hard way that both the current job market and the long-term outlook for IT careers in the U.S. are shakier than ever.

Granted, we are a couple of years past the tech career crash of 2001, when hundreds of thousands of IT professionals lost their jobs. While selective hiring has begun to grow again, the overall IT market has shrunk considerably since the start of the millennium. For instance, the Economic Policy Institute reports that 16% of jobs in the U.S. software industry disappeared between March 2001 and March 2004.

The majority of the jobs haven't so much disappeared as moved overseas to places such as India, China and Malaysia. And it's no wonder the jobs are migrating. IEEE-USA says the median income of a U.S. software engineer was about $100,000 in 2003. In India, that job pays about $11,400 to a senior-level software engineer, according to Payscale. That's a big difference for companies desperately trying to stretch their software development budgets.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, caused quite a controversy when she said about the movement of jobs overseas, "There is no job that is America's God-given right anymore. We have to compete for jobs." Maybe Fiorina was a bit brash in her way of saying it, but Americans could use the wake-up call she was sending us: We have to compete for jobs. And I might add that we have to be willing to work as hard as or harder than those we compete against.

The Associated Press recently ran a story about computer jobs losing their luster. It cited a recent Stanford graduate with a major in computer science and a minor in economics. When he started college in 2001, his goal was to become a code writer for a technology company. Instead, he has taken a job with The Boston Consulting Group because "a consulting job injects you into companies at a higher level," he says. "You don't feel like you're doing basic stuff."

Excuse me? This kid is 22 years old! How does he think he'll be a good consultant without ever having done "the basic stuff"? You can't go from college student to sage consultant overnight. While I don't blame him for wanting to earn good money, I do question his unwillingness to learn the fundamentals of business before trying to jump in at a "higher level."Whatever happened to starting at the bottom and working your way up?

By contrast, a recent article in IndiaTimes highlights the focus Indian students have toward their technical careers. For example, Anil is a high school senior intent on entering the India Institute of Technology, and he's leaving nothing to chance. "I started coaching for IIT the moment my [10th grade] exams got over," he says. He has correspondence notes from one of the top tutorials in the city and goes for classes with three professors for different subjects. "I want to get into [electrical and electronic engineering] or computer science in IIT. I won't settle for less. And once I finish, I'll have all Fortune 100 companies beating a path to my doorstep," he says.

In a country with a population of more than 1 billion, it's understandable why Indian students are intent on preparing for success in the business world. American students, I fear, don't feel that same sense of urgency. One can argue, too, that it's impossible to compete against the economics that reward a company for sending jobs overseas.

So to the new graduates and especially those with an eye on a career in IT, I say: Roll up your sleeves and work hard, don't take your job for granted, and develop skills and knowledge that will protect your career. And good luck - you'll need it!

Musthaler is vice president of Currid & Company, a technology assessment firm in Houston. She can be reached at

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