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Vanishing Act

New statistics suggest the overall IT workforce has shrunk. So just where have the former workers gone-and why?

Now you see 'em, now you don't. About 270,000 workers--9.1% of the IT workforce--vanished in the past year, and no one's sure where they all went, or why. The chief suspects appear to be layoff-spurred career changes, post-Sept. 11 angst, and disillusionment following the dot bomb.

According to analysis of a household survey conducted by the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of IT workers dropped from 2.98 million in January 2001 to 2.71 million last month. (The IT workforce combines people holding IT jobs and the unemployed seeking them.) At InformationWeek's request, bureau economists came up with a category consisting of the three most-relevant IT job classifications they track: computer analysts and scientists, programmers, and computer operators. While that doesn't represent the universe of IT professionals, it includes database managers, systems and software engineers, and computer-security specialists.

Former IT people are turning up everywhere: Ex-network designer John O'Brien, 28, remodels homes around St. Louis with his dad. Andrew Stephens, 32, was an IT consultant and now teaches math at a middle school in Alexandria, Va. One-time IT project leader Julie Malina, 32, does administrative work for a San Francisco insurer. Ex-programmer Krishna Sadasivam, 29, has become a cartoonist.

There's a potentially troubling pattern in those examples, and it's supported by the bureau's data--the majority of ex-IT workers are under 40 years old.

"The IT workforce is made up heavily of people in their 20s, and they're much more likely to explore alternative career directions," says John Challenger, president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Most of the former information technologists interviewed for this story don't plan to return to their old careers, and yet IT managers and other experts don't seem worried, saying any falloff will reverse itself with the economy. "It's cyclic," says Mark Mathias, CIO of IT Rapid, a unit of $2.1 billion heavy-equipment maker Terex Corp. in Westport, Conn. "I've seen the pendulum swing in both directions. Computers are here to stay. "

Some question the validity of the workforce numbers. "A change that dramatic must be an aberration," says Bob Egan, who says he's seen no decline in the IT labor pool from his perch as VP of IT with paper-and-lumber company Boise Cascade Corp. in Boise, Idaho. In fact, bureau officials say there was a drop in the overall U.S. workforce of 1 million people in one month, from December to January, and they can't explain why. They admit that the accuracy of the figures becomes less reliable as the overall sample gets dissected.

Rob Davy

Davy, a systems-support analyst for Tully Coffee, is seeking "the logic of life" outside computer logic.
But people are clearly leaving IT, with unemployment in the field at an all-time high of 6%. Rob Davy, an applications-and systems-support analyst at gourmet-coffee purveyor Tully Coffee Corp. in Seattle, is studying to be a lawyer. Although he likes his job, Davy says "the logic of life" is more interesting to him than computer logic. Working in law, he hopes, "will let me interact deeply with people."

Malina was burning out when she was laid off in March as a project manager at San Francisco Internet consulting firm Fort Point Partners. She relaxed, visited Vietnam, and participated in an event for breast-cancer causes. By August, she was working as an IT project manager for retailer Williams-Sonoma Inc. But when the long hours returned, she had a moment of clarity, and in October she quit. "Working in technology means your lifestyle will be hectic. There will be constant stress," she says. "I had very little work/life balance and realized I just can't do it anymore." Today, she says she's happier doing administrative work--even at a third of her former salary.

Outplacement executive Challenger says dissatisfaction runs deep. The dot-com collapse, recession, Sept. 11, and even the Enron Corp. bankruptcy have caused people to reassess their futures. "They want to make more of an impact on the world," he says.

That's the case with Stephens, a one-time Big Five IT consultant and recruiter, who remembers being chewed out, along with some colleagues, by a client. "We felt like crap," he recalls. "When one of us said, 'We'll still make $100,000 this year,' it launched a discussion around one question: Would you rather do something you love--and make $35,000?" Stephens eventually answered yes and now teaches seventh-grade math. Leaving IT required sacrifices, but they were worth it. "I'm a totally different person," he says. "I'll never go back to IT."

O'Brien, a former network operations-center operator and call-center designer for dot-coms, is different. He'd eagerly return to IT. For now, though, O'Brien is back to brick and mortar--literally--doing home inspections and remodeling. The physical work made him sore at first, but he's 10 pounds lighter.

Some workers will continue to exercise their IT know-how in the business world, albeit in different roles. "Most IT people are ambidextrous, able to do other things," says MIT economics professor Michael Piore. At times like this, flexibility is proving to be their greatest asset.

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