Ask Annie

Finally, signs of life in the tech job market

February 14, 2011: 12:18 PM ET

IT layoffs have dropped to their lowest level in a decade, and demand for techies is expected to jump 32% by 2018. It matters where you live: Some cities can't get enough software engineers right now.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Dear Annie: Please settle an argument. I am a freshman in college, trying to choose a major, and I really want to go with computer science, which fascinates me. The problem is, I keep hearing, mostly from friends who graduated a few years ago, that the job market for techies is really awful and I'd be better off majoring in business or finance instead. I have a big pile of student loans, so I will need to get a decent job as soon as I graduate in 2014. If I do major in computer science, what are my chances? — The Cisco Kid

Dear C.K.: No question about it, the tech job market took a terrible beating during the worst of the recession. But you'd be smart to get a degree in computer science, for at least two reasons. First, it genuinely interests you, as I get the impression that business or finance -- both perfectly fine majors, of course -- do not. If you want to be really great at what you do, nothing beats genuine enthusiasm.

Second, luckily, there is plenty of evidence that the tech job market is poised to come roaring out of the doldrums. For one thing, layoffs in IT have slowed to a trickle, down 73% in 2010 to their lowest level since 2000, according to Chicago outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas.

Even more encouragingly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that demand for IT workers will rise 32% by 2018, with employers looking to hire more than 295,000 software engineers.

And consider this: When job board Indeed.com analyzed millions of 2010 job postings to find the fastest-growing key words, the top 10 were HTML5, mobile app, Android, Twitter, iQuery, Facebook, social media, iPhone, cloud computing, and virtualization. That's right, not just some but all of the top 10 in-demand skills were in IT, which, the report notes, "illustrates the rapidly emerging demand for information technology and social media skills."

Some cities are already struggling with a shortage of techies. New York, suffering from what the local press has dubbed "the geek gap," is one. San Diego is another. Tech job site Dice.com says the city's IT skills shortage "has gotten so severe that the San Diego Software Industry Council and San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. will begin advertising to other counties to attract talent." Among the San Diego companies trying to hire techies are Active Network , K-Force, Northrop Grumman (NOC), and SAIC (SAI).

Don't want to move to San Diego? No problem. Dice recently delved into its 74,413 tech job postings and came up with a list of other places with abundant opportunities for techies. The number one city for IT job growth: Detroit, with more than 800 openings on any given day, double the number posted last year. Tech jobs in Seattle (No. 5 on Dice's list) are up 54% over 2010, Pittsburgh has 45% more IT jobs than last year, and Miami shows a 43% gain.

Why the sudden surge in demand for IT skills, especially software engineering?

"It's an incredibly diverse field, from IT systems for finance, to new car technology, to avionics," says IBM (IBM) systems engineering guru Bruce Douglass. "Software is the invisible thread running through everything, and the demand is only going to increase."

Much of the growth in IT will be in "smart" devices, he says. "Look at the Chevy Volt, a 'smart' electric hybrid vehicle with 10 million lines of code in it, none of it traditional software," says Douglass. "Cars now are banks of computers on wheels. They may have 80 different electronic systems built in, and somebody has to develop those, interconnect them, and test them. It all creates tremendous opportunities that didn't exist five years ago."

Douglass has a few words of advice for you on how to take advantage of the boom. First, while you're studying computer science, "try to get as much experience as you can with real, hands-on projects. Focus on getting internships that will expose you to the practical side of engineering."

And second, Douglass recommends that you "decide which industry -- automotive, medical, telecom -- interests you, and study that field. Learn the trends and the terminology, so that when you go into interviews, you can show employers you have some understanding of the business."

Get ready for a wild ride. "It's an exciting time. The pace of change is accelerating every day," he says. "By the time you graduate in 2014, the whole landscape will be new."

Talkback: If you're in IT, have you noticed a resurgence in job opportunities? Would you consider moving to a different city to get a job? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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