Tuesday, January 06, 2009

IT Job Security in the DC Metro Economic Bubble

How safe is your IT job? And for people like me living in the DC area, does living here make your job any more secure?

There's been lots of rumors and out-right lay-offs in the past month or so, and lots of them in the IT industry. Here's some titles from today's news: IBM employees buzzing about layoff rumors, Microsoft layoff rumors continue their swirl, Bay Biz Buzz: Logitech joins local layoff parade, Widgetmaker Clearspring makes cuts, Lenovo denies rumors of layoff plan, LiveJournal Makes Deep Personnel Cuts, Chelmsford's Kronos cuts jobs, . . . do I need to continue? And that's just TODAY's news! It's hard to think about IBM and Microsoft thinking of laying off folks. I've always thought of them as the most solid of the IT area.

I'll be honest, about a year ago or less I was thinking about switching to a non-government type job. No, I'm not a government employee, but I'm the next best thing. I'm a government contractor, also known in this area as a "Beltway Bandit" or "Parkway Patriot" (my personal favorite). But working as a government contractor does not make my job much more secure. Let me give a pre-recession example.

I've worked for the same company for over three years now. The first contract I worked on was as a lead software development engineer (read project manager) for an online database for the Air Force. Due to several issues (none of them my fault or the fault of my company or coworkers) the customer asked that I be removed from the contract. This should have been the first sign of a problem, because the customer had no issue with me or my work, we were just "overspending the budget" for the contract. So what do you do when money is tight? Get rid of the most expensive person on the team you hired. It doesn't matter that without a team lead the rest of the team needs to pick up the management slack that I was keeping them isolated from. OK, so now you have developers doing their normal job and the management and demonstration aspects of the project. Another warning sign. Three months later our next option year on the contract was not exercised; we (as a team and as a company) were fired.

Now, understand that this contract expiration did not affect me directly (it did affect my company, as we lost several really good people because of this, and I'm still burning a little inside from it). When I was removed from the contract, my company had fortuitously gotten a new contract working in a different part of the same branch of the service. That's when I started in my current position. I've been there coming up on two years now, and every time a contract comes up for annual review I get nervous. The military is spending so much money supporting the war that there is very little money left to pay for contracted efforts that need to be done. Why does the military need so many contractors? Because the government has told them they can only have so many people (many times less than there used to be) but they (the service) need to continue to do everything they used to do. Do more with less by "working smarter, not harder". Yeah, right. As a contractor, I can only work 40 hours a week. There's no overtime on my contract. That's good for me. But I feel bad when I get up and walk out at the "end of the day" and the military and civilian folks are still there, sometimes until 9:00 pm at night.

I really didn't want this to become a dissertation on what's wrong in the military services today. What I'm saying is, in answer to my question, I would say that government jobs in the DC metro area and federal government jobs in general are safe; for now. To be honest, I don't have a good feeling about the next few years. (Heck, I don't have a good feeling about the next few weeks, but that's another story). I don't know what the answer is. I really haven't figured out what the question is! I just know that money is tight everywhere right now, and soon the government will start to feel the pinch. You can only print so much money until it is so devalued that it's useless.

I remember back in 1987 the Air Force sent me to Sicily for a month. Our team decided to go out for pizza (what else would you get in Sicily!). When the meal was over, the bill came to over 120,000 Lira! I looked at it and my jaw hit the table. I'd never seen that many zeros on a restaurant check before. 120,000 Lira! Good Lord! That must be an outrageous amount of dollars! Actually, it came out to about $10 each for the eight of us. Over time, the Lira had become so devalued that you paid rent in the millions.

I don't want to paint a bleak picture of the next few years. We don't know what the future will bring. Right now, there seems to be an economic security bubble over the DC metro area (I heard today we're only up to about 3% unemployment in northern Virginia). However, don't let your guard down. Anything can happen.


Pathik Shah said...

Very thought provoking. Good read and it semi relates to me because i'm looking to become an Air Traffic Controller with the FAA (1st option, second is your run of the mill engineering job). There is a shortage of controllers right now...I am hopeful that area is the most insulated from job losses. IT is a very unique area and unfortunately prone to volatility. I blame the business minded individuals who sometimes do not realize the value of a good IT apparatus.