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Slowing U.S. Technology Market Has Workers Scrambling

WASHINGTON (dpa) – What a difference 12 months can make. This time last year, technology workers had their say in a job market where the demand for technical help far outstripped supply.

“Last year, finding good programmers was like entering an auction,” said Maureen Brenan, a recruiter for Software AG in Reston, Virginia. “We had people call us back and tell us that other firms had offered them a company car, huge cash bonuses, and other perks. They just expected us to raise the stakes. There were times when we just had to tell them ‘take it.'”

Times have definitely changed. In the wake of a NASDAQ freefall that has left the popular technology-laden stock market hovering around a 24-month low, massive layoffs have struck the normally buoyant tech industry.

Over past four months in the United States alone, tens of thousands of technology workers have been shown the door. And the firms laying off employees are not just the famed dot- com bombs that are going out of business at an increasing rate.

Large, stable companies are cutting back as well. Dell Computer Corp., for example, recently announced that it would be cutting 1,700 workers. Telecom giant WorldCom is in the midst of slashing some 15,000 jobs.

Recently, telecom equipment maker Lucent announced cuts totaling 16,000 jobs. AOL Time Warner, too, eliminated about 2,000 jobs. And the list goes on. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the formerly red-hot U.S. technology job market is forcing technology workers to back off on their expectations – and sometimes by a lot.

“We have people calling us back now, asking if they can return. They’re seeking stability and quality of life,” Brenan said. Those who, in the past, eagerly sought work at dot-com companies, hoping to strike it rich in stock options, are now turning their backs on start up opportunities.

“I wouldn’t go to another dot-com,” said Jeffrey Wilkinson, a computer programmer who, just out of college, signed on with a Chicago-based on-line real estate startup in hopes of striking it rich quick. “I’m looking to go corporate because I want a company that’s more solid, more permanent.”

Despite the massive layoffs, though, some observers are predicting that there’s still sufficient demand for technology workers to absorb the thousands who have been recently laid off.

“I think the technology people can find a job almost instantaneously,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger Gray and Christmas, a U.S.-based consulting firm.

Not all technology workers, though, have such a sanguine outlook. While programmers seem to have an easy time of finding work, regardless of the slowdown in the United States, second-tier tech workers, or those perceived as less mission-critical, are finding the job market considerably rougher.

Support personnel, technical writers, software testers, and others sometimes perceived as expendable in the technology field often find themselves competing for just a few jobs in a given region.

“The layoffs have been amazing, and we’re just not getting the non-programmer positions in like we used to,” Lisa Turbyfil, a technical recruiter for Virginia-based Prism, Inc., said.

That fact is indeed causing some newly unemployed technology workers to work harder at finding jobs and to think carefully about where they do ultimately accept a position.

“I used to get three or four headhunter calls each day,” said Christopher Scott, a Maryland- based technical writer. “Now there are weeks when I might get only three. And I’m finding out that most of my unemployed friends are getting calls about the same three jobs.”

And the worst news is that no one can tell exactly when, or if, the technology market will turn around. U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, whose series of interest rate hikes last year contributed to the technology slowdown in some observers’ eyes, is currently on a course of easing interest rates. Greenspan and others clearly hope the interest rate cuts will jumpstart the flagging tech industry.

But confidence among both investors and those in the technology industry has been shaken, and the watchword now seems to be “caution” among technology workers and industry leaders these days. “We’re keeping an eye out,” Turbyfil said. “But so far, things aren’t looking like they’ll get better overnight.”

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