Technology

Idled Tech Employees Embrace Retraining


Jobs in computer security, health-care technology, and clean energy are opening up, and laid-off tech workers are retooling skills to fill them

After more than a year of unemployment, Heather Dobyns knew she needed to take some bold moves to stand out from the pack. In May 2008, she had lost her job selling printing services for Deluxe (DLX) in St. Louis. She was in her late 30s and her unemployment benefits were scheduled to run out in months.

Dobyns enrolled at New Horizons Computer Learning Center to get the certification she would need to operate and provide security on a computer network for a midsize business using Cisco Systems (CSCO) gear. "Having those skills with a sales background [gives me] an edge that I didn't have six months ago," she says.

Workers like Dobyns may have the right idea. Once the economy turns around, hiring managers say they'll staff up technology departments before other divisions, according to a survey of more than 500 U.S. companies released by Robert Half International (RHI) and CareerBuilder on Aug. 25. Workers in such hard-hit industries as financial services and autos are trying to figure out what careers will best position them for the recovery, and the technology field is looking increasingly attractive.

But the tech jobs of tomorrow will likely demand different talents than the ones many workers possess today. Areas of growth include computer security, clean technology, and health-care IT.

At NASA, 7,000 Will Need New Careers

The challenge for workers who are retraining is to decipher the signs that distinguish industries poised for revival from those that have shed jobs for good. Lisa Rice is president of the Brevard Workforce Development Board in Rockledge, Fla., a nonprofit organization that helps workers pay for retraining. She foresees a 20% to 30% increase in such programs' enrollment this year in Brevard County, home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Orsino, Fla.

In 2010, when NASA ends the space shuttle program, nearly 7,000 workers associated with the program will lose their jobs, Rice estimates. "Our challenge is how to get them trained now for a new career that they may need to move into in 2011 or 2012," she says.

Industry stalwarts have also recognized the need to retrain workers for tomorrow's tech jobs. On July 14, Cisco began a retraining program in Michigan focused on broadband, network security, and health-care IT training. The program can handle as many as 5,000 workers.

IBM (IBM), a vendor of software and IT services, is providing on-the-job training for workers at a new facility in Dubuque, Iowa. Marc Demotta, who retired last year after spending 20 years working on radios in the U.S. Air Force, finished two months of training in August and says he learned computer server security and the Unix operating system for his new IBM job as part of a team that manages server security. "It's what I was used to in the military—where you're trained in the basics—but from there you do on-the-job training," he says.

Silicon Valley Shed Jobs in PC Slump

Retraining workers with more timely technology skills won't replace all of the tech jobs that are disappearing as companies shift software development and other tasks overseas. In the first half of 2009, the tech sector saw the largest layoffs in seven years, according to a July report released by recruiting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. And retraining programs aren't always effective. A December 2008 study of federal retraining programs found that it often took dislocated workers years to increase employment rates and relative earnings compared with groups that had not received training.

The computer industry has been particularly hard hit as consumers and businesses have delayed purchases of PCs. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), the largest maker of PCs, is among tech companies that have eliminated thousands of jobs in recent years. Tech unemployment is particularly high in Silicon Valley.

There are signs that jobs in the region will come back, however, thanks in part to demand for expertise in health care and clean technology, according to Josh Williams, workforce initiative director at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a forum of business and government leaders that is working to ensure that enough skilled workers are available there. Silicon Valley isn't currently prepared to meet demand for the kinds of jobs that will be commonplace in 2016, according to a report the organization released in February 2009.

Left unaddressed, the mismatch of jobs and skills could result in income polarization that lets highly skilled workers in hot areas command premium wages while lower-skilled workers see salaries plummet. In response, Valley community colleges are developing more intensive training programs aimed at workers with a bachelor's degree or higher, Williams says.

In St. Louis, unemployed saleswoman Dobyns says she opted for retraining amid expectations that there would be demand for computer security skills in the future. The Obama Administration has earmarked stimulus funds and requested $401 million in the 2010 federal budget to increase private and public cyber-security. Dobyn's training concludes in September, and she says she hopes her college degree and new skills will give her an edge. Says Dobyns: "I need to stand out rather than looking like just another sales rep."

King is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in San Francisco.

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