The tech job market keeps heating up, but not for everybody

October 25, 2012: 9:03 AM ET

While demand for some IT skills is soaring, finding a tech job isn't always easy. A Silicon Valley recruiter explains what employers want now.

FORTUNE -- At first glance, you might think that anyone with up-to-date IT skills and a few years of work experience has it made in the shade. Unemployment among this group has dropped from 4.2% in the third quarter of last year to 3.3% now, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics cited in a new report by tech job site Dice.com, and the jobless rate in some specialized fields is even lower -- a scant 2.3% for software developers, for instance.

Tech consulting alone has seen 10 straight quarters of job growth, with more than 56,000 new positions created so far in 2012, about 17,000 of them in September. At the same time, pay is rising. Base salaries are expected to climb by an average of 5.3% in the year ahead, according to the latest salary guide from researchers at staffing firm Robert Half International. Mobile app developers will get the biggest raises, at around 9%. Network engineers (especially wireless), data modelers, and portal administrators will see higher-than-average pay hikes, too.

So skilled IT professionals should have no trouble finding jobs, or changing jobs, right? Well, not exactly. For one thing, computer and electronics manufacturers have continued to cut headcount, as they have for the past few years, with about 10,000 layoffs announced so far in 2012. All that extra talent adds to the competition for available openings.

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Another fly in the ointment is that so many companies are moving to the cloud that they no longer need as many people in-house. "The landscape is really changing. A few years ago, every company needed its own webmaster, systems administrator, and IT manager, for example," says Michael Morell. "Now, many of those functions are moving to cloud hosts like Amazon and Rackspace. If you're an infrastructure person, there are just fewer opportunities."

Morell is managing partner at Riviera Partners, a San Francisco-based IT recruiting firm whose client list includes Twitter, LinkedIn (LNKD), Groupon (GRPN), Dropbox, Pinterest, and Zappos. He notes that, when it comes to finding a tech job, geography is destiny.

"The national figures are a little misleading, because it all depends on where you are," Morell says. "In places like Silicon Valley and New York City, unemployment is actually a negative number. There just aren't nearly enough candidates to fill all the openings. In many places that aren't tech hubs, though -- including much of the center of the country -- the supply of talent outstrips demand."

No wonder, then, that so many highly skilled and experienced techies complain they can't get hired. If you're one of them, what can you do (besides move) to boost your chances? Morell says that, in addition to topnotch technical skills, employers are looking for these three things:

1. Intellectual curiosity. "Be interested in solving problems, and ask interesting questions," Morell advises. Often, he says, techies don't demonstrate a genuine interest by taking the time to research prospective employers before interviews. "You especially have to show you understand the company's vision and purpose, and that you're aligned with those," he says. "If you're not, nothing else matters."

Interviewers also prefer candidates who are "very deliberate about what they're looking for and why," Morell adds. "So think about exactly why you want to work for this company, rather than just any company, and why you'd be a good fit."

2. A coherent story. Many tech whizzes, understandably proud of their many certifications and other credentials, list all of them on resumes and in their LinkedIn profiles. "LinkedIn is a great way to tell your story to employers, but most people include way too much information in it, without really telling what's important," he says. "You don't need to list every certificate. Instead, highlight just the achievements you're especially proud of."

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He also recommends mentioning "something about you as a person -- your interests outside of work, causes you've contributed to, or whatever matters to you. You never know what will intrigue an employer or a recruiter enough to want to know more about you."

3. A deliberate career path. "People make career moves for all sorts of reasons, like going to another company because a friend works there," notes Morell. That's okay, but "employers are impressed by candidates whose career arc so far is not just a series of random moves. So before you sit down with a headhunter or a hiring manager, be ready with an explanation for the thinking behind your decisions -- even for why you took a job that, in the end, didn't work out."

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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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