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Is Flexibility the Key to Stability in 2010?

With unemployment, hiring freezes and redundancy dominating the headlines, it’s not surprising that many business professionals will happily say goodbye to a recession-dominated 2009 and look forward to a more positive 2010.

The IT sector, like many others, was unable to sidestep the impact of a global recession, experiencing a significant slowdown as the recession took hold. Keith Butler, who heads NES Group’s specialist IT division, examines the impact of 2009 and gives advice to jobseekers.

A look back at 2009

As with most industries, the IT industry was significantly affected in 2009, with reports suggesting that 2009 was the worst year ever for IT budgets. However, with the introduction of effective IT systems – an essential element of the cost-cutting theme that dominated the year – some buoyancy within the market was preserved, with demand for suitably qualified IT professionals remaining higher than in many other sectors. The impact of the recession was more of a deceleration than anything more catastrophic, particularly from within the public sector and utilities, where pre-allocated budgets allowed certain planned IT investment to go ahead.

While other industries, engineering for example, saw a growing preference towards a permanent workforce in 2009 as companies sought greater control of their budgets, IT experienced a shift in the opposite direction and there was a noticeable reduction in permanent vacancies. Contract workers generally saw fewer opportunities for assignment extensions – the days of working for years at a time on the same extended contract are long gone – so they had to become much more proactive in securing new roles.
Pleasingly, contractors understood the pressure that hiring managers have been under during the recession, which has helped when recruitment consultants have been given the unfavourable task of negotiating reduced rates. Nobody likes getting paid less, but the co-operation and consideration of those who have been flexible about their rate won’t go unnoticed and they’ll be well regarded upon exiting the recession.

Flexibility with location was also important during 2009. Those who were geographically more flexible saw more opportunities open to them and it was pleasing to see even those working in central London, who’d previously had no problems stipulating they would work no more than a couple of tube stops from home, are now considering a wider area for the right role.

The outlook for the year ahead

There’s undoubtedly a feeling of optimism about the outlook for 2010 in certain areas of the private sector, particularly financial and other service sectors and the demand for permanent staff is starting to pick up.

In the public sector, organisations will continue to face the pressures of budget caps, with each and every role having to be justified as providing the best value for money. The impact of the impending General Election is that some projects will be put on hold, although the level of investment to date in a number of major projects means they will continue until much later into the year or beyond.

Given the need for greater efficiencies in the public sector, there will still be a trend to attract private sector, commercially minded talent, so the shift from private to public sector organisations will continue throughout the year.

It’s worth noting that if you’re considering a move from commercial into the public sector, you should prepare to embrace a new approach to work. A greater degree of accountability, multiple stakeholders and potentially higher levels of bureaucracy can be difficult to adjust to.

A flexible approach to your salary or rate is advisable throughout 2010, certainly during the first half of the year as market conditions are measured. Despite some optimism about the coming year in the private sector, caution over hiring spend isn’t going to disappear overnight and budget restrictions imposed over the last year are only going to be relaxed gradually.

Job applicants who are willing to negotiate lower salaries or rates won’t just be making recruiters and hiring companies happy, it’s also about maintaining a work history that is free from breaks. It’s far easier to provide a positive explanation for a reduction in salary than an eight month period out of work as a result of a rigid approach to earnings.

Geographical flexibility will be beneficial throughout 2010, as contractors adjust their outlook to take advantage of the best opportunities. Indeed, it’s not just locations throughout the UK that have grown in popularity, international flexibility increased towards the end of last year and is set to continue as job seekers become more open to the possibility of international assignments.

Early indications are that international IT assignments will grow in popularity as they have done within Europe, the Middle East and Australia as candidates begin to realise assistance with visas, flights and tax can make moving overseas almost as straightforward as relocating between locations in the UK.

Advice for jobseekers

Advice to those seeking work within IT remains largely as it has done in the past: ensure that CVs are up-to-date and tailored to each application; take advantage of training opportunities to improve your skill set between contracts or during periods of unemployment; and be flexible about location and rates to maximise the number of opportunities available to you.

It’s not uncommon to hear somewhat disapproving groans when an applicant is advised to tailor their CV, but the “scattergun” approach to job seeking – sending the same standard document to every vaguely appealing vacancy – is best avoided. If you’re going to invest any effort, you might as well give it your best shot. Tailoring a CV doesn’t have to mean starting each time from scratch. Use each job specification as a guide to make the appropriate tweaks to present your skills and qualifications in the best light.

Think about it for a minute. Step into the shoes of an HR or line manager. Not so long ago you received five applications when you advertised a job, now you get 50. You have an abundance of candidates to choose from but a quick scan of each CV is all that your time permits. Some hopefuls have invested time in addressing requirements of the job specification, others have fired off the same CV for any job they’ve come across. Which one would appeal to you? Who are you going to notice? Being able to appreciate the perspective of your CV’s recipient is helpful.

Some industries have reported problems with senior level job seekers downplaying CVs during the recession, which is less of a concern in IT, where short-term contract roles now prevail. A more frequently encountered problem is the over-emphasis of previous roles and responsibilities. Even if this tactic successfully misleads the recruiter or hiring manager, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to keep up the pretence if you’re invited to an interview, so don’t be tempted to embellish your skills, qualifications or experience to increase your appeal.

What is advisable, especially for permanent workers seeking new opportunities in 2010 – assuming that the necessary funding is available – is to take positive action to enhance the appeal of your CV through accredited training. This acts as a differentiator, not only through the acquisition of a recognised qualification, but also by demonstrating a positive attitude to unemployment, where time has been invested wisely to enhance employment value.

Finally, at a time when contract extensions are less common than they were, it is important to maintain regular contact with recruitment agencies. You’re likely to require their services more often than in the past and the nature of the IT industry means that you could be working on some of the latest emerging technologies. Rest assured, if the technology is new to you, it’ll be new to a recruiter too, so regular updates are worthwhile.

Telling recruiters that you have experience with a new technology means that they can accurately match you to suitable vacancies, so agree a mutually convenient frequency of contact, and stick to it. Keep people up-to-date with what you’ve been doing to find work and have regular, realistic discussions about what you would like and what you have to offer so that you’re in a favourable position when suitable opportunities arise.

The author

Keith Butler, head of specialist IT division at NES Group

(ITadviser, Issue 61, Spring 2010)



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