Even as companies rely more on technology, I.T. jobs aren’t inherently secure

Marriott chief executive Arne Sorenson told staff in an internal blog post earlier this month that the company plans to trim its information technology workforce and shift some of those responsibilities to outside firms that specialize in I.T. services. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Marriott International has never been more reliant on technology. Like others in the hospitality industry, the Bethesda-based hotelier depends on technology for everything from facilitating reservations to training kitchen personnel.

Yet Marriott chief executive Arne Sorenson told staff in an internal blog post earlier this month that the company plans to trim its information technology workforce and shift some of those responsibilities to outside firms that specialize in I.T. services — namely IBM, Xerox, Tata Consulting Services and possibly Accenture.

The shift points to a truism in today’s job market: Technology jobs are not inherently secure simply because firms in every industry now rely on Internet connections, software applications and computing devices to engage customers and run internal operations.

And although the sector has been more resilient than many others during the economic downturn, not all I.T. jobs enjoy the same degree of stability. Web development, cybersecurity and cloud computing, for example, tend to see greater demand for workers.

“The market continues to shift from where I.T. was for years a business unit that was inside of a corporation, to today in many ways it is the business,” said Jim Goodmiller, vice president of the Midwest region at DISYS, an I.T. staffing firm. “I.T. departments are trying to figure out how do we fit into this new world, and there’s a lot of conflict that takes place as a result of that.”

Some corporations, like Marriott, have opted to keep their information technology departments slim by focusing on essential business needs and hiring outside help to handle the rest. Others periodically shake up their payrolls as the company’s technical needs change and employees’ skill sets become obsolete.

That’s the case at Arlington County-based Rosetta Stone, the maker of foreign language software. Chief executive Steve Swad said earlier this month that the company would eliminate 64 positions from its shrinking CD-ROM business and hire Web developers at new offices in Austin and San Francisco to build software delivered via the Internet.

“Some current employees with the appropriate skill sets are indeed relocating to the new offices, but most of the roles there are being filled by new individuals with experience and know-how to support our evolving strategy,” said spokesman Jonathan Mudd.

Goodmiller said that the technology positions with the most staying power are those tied directly to the growth of the business and that I.T. professionals have to keep their skills fresh as the needs of the business change.

“The closer you can stay to supporting the business, the more effective you will be,” he said. “The thing I really stress to people is improve your skill set that brings value to your organization beyond just the technology.”

Marriott’s core business, for example, is hotel ownership and management. Technology merely helps get the job done. As a result, some of the I.T. work can be outsourced to companies for whom that technology is a “core competency.”

“The goal is to deliver greater efficiencies for our owners and franchisees and the company,” Sorenson wrote on his blog.

“No matter how beneficial to the future well-being of our company, it is never easy when business decisions impact jobs,” he added. “We recognize that these are challenging times for associates facing transition.”

Chris Brinkman, regional vice president at Robert Half International, an I.T. staffing firm, said more companies are shipping technology work to outside firms, particularly projects that have a more definitive end date.

“We are seeing more project-based work than we had even a few years ago,” Brinkman said. “There are a good number of companies that are still exercising caution as a result of the economic downturn.”

A Robert Half survey of 100 chief technology officers in the Washington region found that 16 percent were planning to expand their I.T. departments during the second quarter. Another 63 percent planned to fill vacant positions.

But 18 percent said hiring has been put on hold for the quarter, and 2 percent said they plan to lay off workers, indicating that reservations about hiring linger for some companies.

“Anyone who can show some type of return on investment, where they’ve been able to show savings in time or money in whatever position they have been in and highlight that in a résumé or interview, that can help individuals looking for positions separate themselves from the rest of the pack,” Brinkman said.

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.
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