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Will My Job Survive?

Although no one can guarantee your IT position will remain intact through a turbulent economy, here's how you can plan now to protect yourself later.

Will My Career Survive?IN AN ECONOMIC DOWNTURN that seems to defy fiscal doctrine, how can you be sure your IT job will remain safe through the coming ups and downs? Look first to the indicators, say the pros.

Higher Ed vs. Corporate America

In May, when the University of Florida announced a $47 million reduction plan for its 2008-2009 budget, the elimination of faculty and staff positions comprised a considerable chunk of the savings. To date, however, only four affected staff positions reside within the IT organization, and those are jobs simply going unfilled. More recently, the California State University system is steeling itself for $97 million in cuts against a budget that is already $215 million below its operational needs for the year. Layoffs aren't yet a part of the public discussion.

While reports like these might lead those campus IT execs and staffers to feel they've dodged a bullet for the time being, international executive outplacement pros Challenger, Gray & Christmas have estimated that 180,000 people in tech sector jobs nationwide would be laid off by the end of 2008 (that count has yet to come in). Yet, for the entire higher education community (including staff and faculty from every part of the institution, not just IT), only 2,903 individuals had been laid off through October of 2008. Statistically speaking-- and considering the budget-cutting mandates across campuses nationwide-- that number seems almost insignificant. Could it be that IT professionals in higher ed are indeed insulated from the economic vagaries impacting the corporate sector right now?

Not so fast, warns the outplacement firm's CEO John Challenger. Right now, "The center of the [layoff] storm is financial services, automotive, and housing and construction. But education is likely to feel more of the tension as we go into 2009." He believes there will be increasing pressures on higher ed organizations to cut their costs as both student enrollment and giving decline, which will translate to more layoffs campuswide. "What you'll see first is organizations imposing hiring freezes or cutting perks, benefits, or hours. Then you'll get the layoffs."

"You want to make sure that if you were let go, the void in your expertise would create a big vacuum."

But take heart: Even then, says Challenger, campus (including IT) layoffs won't come near the levels being announced by corporations such as Sun Microsystems, which is going to cut as many as 6,000 positions, and HP, which may terminate up to 25,000 individuals.

Currently, mass layoffs aren't hitting American higher education for two reasons, explains Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. First: Historically, institutions of higher education are not as affected by volatile fluctuations in the economy. Second: "When the economy goes bad, higher ed often is counter-cyclical, in that enrollments increase. As unemployment increases, a large proportion of the population returns to the classroom to hone skills and knowledge." At least, this is how the picture has played out in recent decades.

And, like Challenger, Hurley maintains that even if state appropriations to schools are reduced, "The most you'll see is hiring freezes, travel cuts, across-the-board department cuts, and a host of other things, before laying off a large number of employees." Importantly, technology and its practitioners will remain crucial to colleges and universities as the goal for institutions continues to be to "protect the academic core," says Hurley. "The student in the classroom is Job One, and when it comes to the role of IT people, their work is absolutely essential to good instructional delivery. Frankly, as you get farther away from the classroom, those individuals can oftentimes be viewed as more dispensable. The work of IT staffers also is pervasive throughout the organization and therefore is a little more indispensable than staff that is more compartmentalized."

Again, that doesn't mean hiring for those "indispensable" jobs won't slow down. Linda Hodges, VP and IT practice leader for Witt/Kieffer, a national search firm specializing in higher education and healthcare, has seen a definite slowdown in the positions her firm is helping institutions fill. "We were at a major conference where several people talked to us about senior positions they wanted to recruit," she reports. "None of those have materialized, because schools have placed holds on hiring new people. It's a wait-and-see game with the economy."

IT Means 'Innovation'

Neil Allison, principal of Informed Education and a consultant with New Publishing Solutions, believes that the IT organization is where much innovation can originate that will help save schools from the kind of financial pain that leads to layoffs.

Those innovations can take several forms. One obvious form: Use IT to automate and reduce the costs of business processes, such as using online workflow processes to support the automating of paper-based processes. Allison admits, however, that such efforts hardly make a dent in addressing the bulk of higher education expense, which resides with instruction and facilities. Achieving gains in those areas by, say, putting core courses online, is more contentious, but also more effective. "There are significant cost savings that can be achieved through redesigning courses, whether purely online or through hybrid models," explains the consultant. "That reduces costs by minimizing space requirements and instructional costs."

What if the Ax Falls?

You did your best, but find yourself in Layoff Land anyway. What do you do now?

  • It ain't no holiday. According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas CEO John Challenger, "Don't take holidays off! Keep looking for the next job; assume that your competitors are taking the holiday."
  • Keep off the keyboard. "Don't do it all from the computer," says Challenger. That means getting away from the keyboard and generating contacts in person by advertising your job loss, meeting with new people every day, attending social events, pursuing leads through your spouse and friends, and monitoring business activities in your town or city that may lead to new employment opportunities.
  • IT first. Challenger doesn't believe that IT professionals should consider themselves tied to the higher education sector. "You should think of yourself in IT first, and in higher ed second. Higher ed is your bull's eye because you've got a double set of experiences, but IT skills are portable to other sectors of the economy."
  • It's not all about you. Mark Feffer at the tech job site advises, "There's no stigma attached to losing your job, especially not right now with so many people losing theirs." Sure, it's shattering to be handed a box and told to clean out your desk, but, "Take a little time to get your breath, and then get back out there and start looking as soon as you can."
  • Talk nice, find friends, solve problems. Feffer has three essential guidelines for those who find themselves on the outside looking in. 1) "Never badmouth the people who let you go. Always be positive about the place you used to work for." 2) Look for places where you can find support. "That includes professional associations and organizations where you can talk to people in the same boat you are in." 3) Make sure your cover letters and resumes are tailored to the particular challenges of any job you apply for. "People in IT need to regard any job posting they see, as a 'problem.' The company is saying, 'We have a problem we need to solve.' Your mindset should be: How can I solve that problem for this company, and then demonstrate that?"

A third area of technology-driven innovation is beginning to take hold in digital content delivery and textbooks. Says the AASCU's Hurley: "I see more institutions playing a greater role in facilitating the shift to digital; playing a more active role in partnering with publishers to bring more innovative and cost-effective solutions to students."

And when it comes to securing new talent for the IT posts that do open up (or making your own job move possible), Hodges at Witt/Kieffer suggests thinking out of the box about housing-- yes: housing. She reports that a recent CIO opening at the University of Kentucky drew interested candidates, but many expressed concern about selling a home to make the move to a new location. The recruiter says her firm's clients are now being more generous in terms of temporary housing. In one case, the institution let potential candidates know that they'd be allowed to use a university-owned property for up to a year. In other situations, signing bonuses have been offered along with some type of relocation assistance.

Layoff Protection

What if the economy worsens and IT staff sizes are reduced?

"The core functions are going to be most in demand," says Challenger, who points out that organizations are likely to defer and scale back their IT budgets for new development and big, long-term projects. Thus, "The more you can become an expert on something that's crucial to the organization's business-- and become the only one or best one at it-- the better. You want to make sure that if they were to let you go, it would create a big vacuum," he advises.

Mark Feffer, managing editor for the technology job search site, agrees. "If IT organizations have people with very specific knowledge-- security, network infrastructure, firewalls-- they're probably going to hold onto them." Likewise, he says, "An individual 'clued-in' to the institution's mission-- standing out in terms of the value he brings in, the amount of work he does, and the quality of his work-- is the kind of person the CIO is going to want to keep."

Look Around

At the same time, Feffer suggests that employed campus IT professionals: a) keep resumes up-to-date ("It makes you take stock of what you're doing and where you want to be") and b) network.

"People talk to each other between institutions more than they do in the corporate world," he points out. Campus tech executives, especially, frequently contact the CIO of another institution, even if they've never met before, to initiate a collegial conversation about some new or considered tech initiative. "That kind of networking can be very important. If you're used to keeping your head down and doing your job, you probably need to start stretching a little bit, reaching out and looking for opportunities to meet other people at other institutions, and getting your name known in the wider world."

Bottom line? There are a number of ways to protect your position within your IT organization during the current (and possibly worsening) economic downturn. And while IT layoffs may be a last or later course of action for higher ed administrators, they are still looming, and no one wants to be an easy target. Witt/Kieffer's Hodges puts it succinctly: "If there's any time to be at the top of your game, to give it your all, it's during an economic time like this. Now is the time to demonstrate your commitment to the organization."

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