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Bright Side of the Labor Numbers

Having come down from the tech bender of the late 1990s, IT professionals are particularly pessimistic about their prospects. Seven out of 10 say their career is less promising than it was five years ago, according to a recent InformationWeek survey of more than 15,000 IT pros. Many IT veterans, both employed and unemployed, are so disillusioned that they're considering other careers and discouraging their kids from entering the profession.

It's easy to get down when you're out of work or watching your department downsize. But don't abandon IT for accounting or forestry just yet. Just as savvy investors plow into the market at its bottom, so too should IT professionals--and their employers--be anticipating a tech labor shortage that's just around the corner.

Let's examine the more positive side of the employment stats. For one thing, the number of IT jobs is still growing, even if it's at a slower pace than we're used to. The U.S. economy began 2003 with 10.3 million IT workers, up 4.2 percent from the start of 2002, according to the ITAA, which estimates that in the first quarter 86,000 more IT workers were added to the rolls than were cut. Looking ahead, 10 percent of 1,400 CIOs recently surveyed by job-placement firm Robert Half Technology said they plan to expand their departments in the coming months, while 3 percent expect to downsize. (The rest expect no change.) The net 7 percent increase is up three points from the firm's second-quarter forecast.

Longer term, the overall market is trending toward increasing labor scarcity. By 2010, the U.S. economy will support 167 million jobs, but the population will be able to fill only 157 million of those jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Software engineers, computer support specialists, network administrators, systems analysts and database administrators are among the professionals expected to be in shortest supply.

Even assuming that, over the long haul, the labor pool will even out as compensation increases, immigrants and others enter the U.S. work force and some jobs are shipped overseas, the trend bodes well for the average IT pro. Consider that during the late '90s tech boom, when demand exceeded supply by only 3 million jobs, salaries and bonuses escalated and everything from stock options to flex-hour programs was offered to attract and retain workers. Today, many management and HR consultants are predicting a talent war that will make the late '90s job market look tame.