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Slowdown Forces Many to Wander for Work

"I think for many years, people were able to build careers and have the middle-class lifestyle by working in IT . . . [but] demand for IT workers has dropped significantly," said Bob Cohen of the Information Technology Association of America, which represents companies in the industry.

'Just in Time' Staffing

The slowdown is driven by a number of factors. The Internet and telecommunications booms of the 1990s went bust, causing companies to shut down or cut jobs. Technology has matured, so corporate computer systems need less human support. Companies are finding it cheaper to use foreign tech workers, importing temporary immigrants or "offshoring" jobs to companies in India and elsewhere.

"I just want to see my family happy. I want to see them satisfied. That's all I care about," says David Packman, playing with his sons Donovan, 9, and Kaz, 4. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

_____Live Discussion_____
Tuesday, 11 a.m. ET: Washington Post staff writer Greg Schneider will be online to discuss this article.
_____$17/Hour Series_____
Permanent Job Proves An Elusive Dream (The Washington Post, Oct 11, 2004)
As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads (The Washington Post, Sep 20, 2004)
Information Technology Employment Overall, the IT workforce has declined since its 2000 peak. Computer programmers and electronics engineers have been especially vulnerable. Wage increases have also slowed.
About This Series

This is the third in a series of occasional articles about the changes roiling the middle of the American workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 an hour, with such benefits as health care and pensions. Other stories in the series will address how the changes are affecting large and small businesses and will look at the prospects for new types of jobs to take the place of those lost. To read the stories published so far, go to www.washingtonpost.com/business. Reporter Greg Schneider will be online at 11 a.m. today to discuss this article.

Companies also save money with "just-in-time" technology staffing, hiring outsiders for brief projects rather than keeping permanent workers. Many U.S. workers are forced to become independent contractors, like Packman, hiring themselves out for temporary gigs wherever they can find a company with a short-term need.

Some tech workers prefer the independent life. "Even with paying my own health benefits and having to carry the tax burden for Social Security, I'm still making more money than I made as a salaried employee," said Joan Ozello of Potomac, who has been working as an independent security and capital planning consultant since being laid off from a technology company four years ago. "When people waste my time, and I have to work extra hours to make up for breakdowns, I get paid for it," she said.

And companies say such staffing practices are essential in a time of increasing global competition. From financial services giants to struggling manufacturers such as Eastman Chemical Co., businesses find flexibility to be their biggest information technology asset.

"The business is changing rapidly. . . . I can't really afford to have a large staff and have them sitting on the bench when I don't have the work to do," said Jerry Hale, chief information officer for Eastman Chemical, based in Kingsport, Tenn. Hale has shrunk his tech payroll by more than a quarter in the past few years, he said, using a mix of local contractors and offshore workers to augment his in-house staff.

But many workers feel steamrolled by the trend. "There's been a shift of risk from the employer, who might have carried some of these people during the slow times, to the individual," Hira said. "Economists view this as efficiency -- companies can offload workers when they don't need them. But from the workers' point of view, how do you manage your career now?"

It's all part of a broader reshaping of the American workplace that has been going on since the late 1970s, said Arne Kalleberg , a sociology professor who studies labor issues at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "We have a hollowing out of the job structure, and so these jobs that were once middle class are now low-skilled or disappear. People are forced to move elsewhere to try to get them," Kalleberg said.

The challenges facing tech workers vary around the country. Many regions that boomed during the tech bubble -- such as San Francisco, Denver and parts of Utah and Texas -- have lost population as workers flee shrunken job markets, said Marc Perry of the U.S. Census Bureau.

A study released this summer of people laid off in the Dallas area found that 13 percent had to leave the region to find work. Nearly two-thirds of the 573 survey participants had lost technology-related jobs. Next-biggest was manufacturing, at 8 percent.

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