Where the tech jobs are now

At least 400,000 tech jobs are going begging, even in this economy. Here are the skills employers are looking for most.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

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Even in this economy, employers are looking to connect with candidates with the right tech skills.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: My son is going to graduate from college in December with a B.S. in computer science, and I am just wondering about the IT job market. On the one hand, we keep hearing about layoffs and outsourcing, but on the other hand, everything runs on computers now, so surely there must be some good tech jobs in this country, especially at the (relatively cheap) entry level. Is there anything he can do to increase his chances of getting hired six months from now? -Pasadena Papa

Dear Pasadena: Funny you should ask. CompTIA, the biggest trade association for IT folks and their employers, recently launched a new recruiting campaign aimed at filling an estimated 400,000 tech job openings.

Still, "before the recession, it was 700,000," says Todd Thibodeaux, CompTIA's CEO.

With so many people looking for work, why are so many jobs going begging? The short answer: A scarcity of candidates with the skills, or combinations of skills and credentials, that employers want. Even people with years of tech experience may find they need to upgrade their certifications and venture into new territory in order to retool their careers in today's job market.

"I've had jobs go unfilled for weeks or months because people with the right combinations of skills just aren't available," says Scott Dunlop, managing partner of Boston-area tech recruiters Bivium Group.

Candidates don't necessarily need to be programmers or systems analysts, or have worked for a tech company to get hired, says Todd Thibodeaux, CompTIA's CEO. "Most IT jobs are in tech support in a wide range of businesses like hotels, hospitals, and factories," he says.

"These days, employers are looking for people who can do hardware-and-software integration and data security," Thibodeaux adds. "One category in big demand now is basic computer skills, which will get you hired at the entry level. Then you can add certifications from specific vendors like Cisco (CSCO, Fortune 500) and HP (HPQ, Fortune 500), and other more advanced certifications as you move up in the organization."

You don't even have to live in Silicon Valley. "We're seeing tech openings in Des Moines, Boise, Louisville, all over the map," says Gretchen Koch, a director of skills development at CompTIA.

"There are tech jobs available even here in Detroit, many of them in hospitals," says Mark McManus, CEO of New Horizons Computer Learning Centers of Michigan, Chicago & Cleveland. In general, "tech jobs that require continual collaboration with other departments don't get outsourced," he adds.

And even with outsourcing, "the fastest-growing demand here in the U.S. is still for help desk and desktop support people," notes Koch. A recent survey by staffing company Robert Half International shows that 51% of employers plan to add IT staff over the coming year, many of which will be help-desk jobs. These can be a good way to get a foot in the door.

"Usually entry-level people do that for six months or a year before getting additional training and certifications and moving on to network administration, security, database management, or some other specialty," she says.

Another area to consider: As the health-care industry continues to grow, your son might be smart to focus his job search on medical providers and work on acquiring the skills specific to them.

Unemployment among tech workers stands at about 4.9%, far lower than the 9.6% overall U.S. jobless rate, "so IT is still faring better than most fields," says Tom Silver, CEO of tech job board Dice.com. Yet, he says, "there is a lot of frustration among job seekers now, however, because employers are hiring very slowly and looking for the exact right fit."

Dice.com recently compiled a list of the skill sets most in demand among employers.The top 5:

Security. Employers often want to hire people who have earned the CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) designation (see www.isc2.org). Candidates need 5 years of hands-on experience before taking the exam.

Virtualization. The term refers to the practice of running multiple servers on a single piece of hardware, increasing efficiency and conserving energy.

Java EE. Sun Microsystems' (JAVA, Fortune 500) Java and its enterprise edition, until recently called J2EE, are the industry standards for developing online applications, so the Sun Certified Java Programmer (SCJP) designation is in widespread demand.

SAP. Most employers prefer candidates who have direct on-the-job experience with SAP (SAP), but "having the right credentials can make even experienced candidates stand out," the Dice.com report says.

.NET. Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) has a variety of certifications, Dice.com notes, but "the most bang for the buck comes from the Microsoft Certified Professional Developer (MCPD)" designation, which covers Microsoft Visual Studio and the Microsoft .NET framework.

With a spanking-new degree in computer science, your son will already have an edge, but he'd do well to earn a certification or two. People who want to upgrade their skills or switch into IT from other fields who want to switch to IT can get training at local community colleges, computer-training centers and other specialty schools.

Many schools offer some form of financial aid. What's more, for unemployed adults looking to change fields, state and federal funding may be available to cover tuition costs. (New college grads are not usually eligible for these programs.)

Readers, what do you say? Readers, what do you say? If you're a current or former techie, how does the job market look from where you stand? If you're an employer, are you having trouble finding applicants with the skills you're seeking? Job hunters in other fields, have you ever considered making the switch to an IT career? Tell us on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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