Brave New Job Hunt

There was a time when Andy Sipowicz, hero of "NYPD Blue," made the perfect cop. He's tough, street-smart and knows how to squeeze a perp till he squeals. But old-school Andy lacks a skill that may soon be a prerequisite for 21st-century detective work: knowing how to glean secrets from a suspect's hard drive. In an age when computers hold the key to everything from terrorist plots to accounting scandals, nearly every crime can potentially leave "digital evidence," says Burlington, Vt., Police Lt. Michael Schirling. And that's why 26 students at Champlain College have signed up for Computer Forensics, a new course taught by Schirling and Champlain professor Gary Kessler. They'll learn which kinds of search warrants gumshoes need to look inside a PC as well as how to find out what a suspect typed in a chat room or tried to delete. "Law-enforcement agencies are backed up months, if not years, in forensic examinations of computers," Schirling says. That means good job prospects for people with this know-how.

Geeked-out police officers are just one example of how technology is invading all sorts of professions that once were computer-free. And as people at all altitudes on the career ladder look to what lies ahead in their work lives, they'll have to calculate how much technology they need to add to their portfolio of skills--or how to make those skills relevant to new industries. Even folks with no intention of leaving the tech jobs they already have are finding they need to diversify, as companies require more non-tech business skills. The unifying theme to the advice of job-hunting pros today: it's time to think of "tech jobs" and "tech skills" much more broadly. Their message is especially resonant at a time when most traditional tech companies aren't hiring. Overall tech-industry employment has fallen 5 percent, according to the Information Technology Association of America, and that means workers who built their careers in tech industries are having to look farther afield to find new opportunities.

That can take creativity. Consider a finance executive laid off from his tele-communications firm. He used to work in "broadband billables" and wants to tout that on his resume. Trouble is, telecom jobs have disappeared, so he's looking in disparate industries where recruiters have no idea what "broadband billables" means (it refers to collecting revenue for telecom services). "The skills may be transferable, but the words on the resume may not be," says Bernadette Kenny, executive vice president at Lee Hecht Harrison, an outplacement firm. So Kenny's team teaches job applicants to describe their skills in terms other industries can understand.

As tech industries have cooled off, many workers think the skills their old employers valued are worthless today. Some are finding smart ways to leverage their skills in new areas. Jennifer McNally at Evolution Robotics is starting to see applicants from traditional computer companies, which makes sense. "Robotics is the natural evolution of the PC," McNally says. Other techies who've seen their Silicon dreams melt are looking toward more-traditional sectors. Three years ago Linda Caplinger left a stable job in a biotech lab to take a $52,000-a-year position as a content manager at Infoseek. When she was laid off last year, she jumped to Yahoo, but that job evaporated in six months. Now jobless and forced to live with five housemates in San Jose, Calif., she comes away from every job interview discouraged by employers' pickiness. "They want M.B.A. degrees or degrees in library science or cognitive science," she says, even for jobs Caplinger and thousands of others did without these degrees during boom times. So Caplinger has started taking courses in real estate and studying for her broker's license. "Home sales are still strong," she says. Even if the housing bubble bursts, she figures, it can't get any more volatile than the tech market.

On college campuses, students have the--latest skills, but with limited experience they're having problems finding a firm toehold in the tech economy. At the University of California, Berkeley, Career Center director Tom Devlin sees more employers scrutinizing student GPAs and summer internships. Microsoft will still hire 800 new graduates and 1,000 interns this year. But with diminished competition from dot-coms, Microsoft recruiters admit they're being pickier than ever, focusing on students who've already interned at the company. As companies cut back on regular jobs, students are increasingly taking extended internships, which can last up to a year. It's the same story at Pace University in New York, where some grads spent the past year in temp jobs rebuilding databases destroyed in the World Trade Center collapse. "They're much more realistic--they're not expecting the world," says Joan Mark, executive director of career services.

Even folks who've held onto tech jobs are facing new demands from employers. Many companies report the same trend: asking tech workers to broaden their generalist skills. Until a few years ago the IT department at USAA, the financial-services company, functioned like most other techies: it fixed broken computers and did special projects for USAA's various divisions. But to cut down on the cost of superfluous requests, USAA set up its tech department as a separate company, and now the 2,800 employees charge in-house clients an hourly rate that they benchmark against outsourcing pros like EDS or IBM. To make it work, the techies now have to think like small-business people. "We've had a major dose of Business 101," says Stephen Yates, the company's CEO. There's a similar push on at Teradyne, which makes equipment high-tech companies use to test computer gear. Teradyne's goal is to turn more of its engineers into deeply skilled project managers who understand sophisticated techniques to manage deadlines, allocate resources and minimize time-to-market. In the past, "we'd typically take the brightest engineers and make them project managers even though they might not have the skills," says John Wood, a Teradyne manager. But since they've pushed more engineers through project-management training, new products are being launched more quickly and with less cleanup work.

Technology is also revolutionizing what were once blue-collar, lower-wage industries --and making them much more attractive. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation has 60,000 unfilled auto-service jobs; by 2010, that number will rise to 150,000. Why the shortages? "The grease-monkey image is still common," says BMW North America chief Tom Purves. But graduates of BMW's 27-week, tuition-free training program average $55,000 in starting salaries, with the potential to exceed $100,000 as they reach "master service technician" status. Neil Angotta graduated from high school in 1997 and headed to college to study oceanography. Then he detoured to a tech school for a grueling 18-month auto-mechanics training program. "People really don't have a clue how technical cars are--some of them have 70 computers on them," Angotta says. "It's really skilled work to determine a problem and then fix it." When he finished training, he had 20 job offers; his friends who completed their bachelor's degrees are struggling. "They're in low-income jobs, not in their fields of study, and here I am," says Angotta, who earns $60,000 for working a four-day week at Braman Motorcars in West Palm Beach, Fla. "It's kind of amazing."

The bright side of this change is that as technology spreads out to all sorts of industries, working in high tech doesn't mean being confined to a cubicle. Consider Mike Shuman. He's always loved horses and thoroughbred racing. Today he's IT director at Taylor Made Farm in Lexington, Ky., spending his workdays on a 1,600-acre breeding farm. Shuman has used the farm's 40 PCs and four servers to create customized databases that give the farm managers the ability to cross-reference each horse's wins, medical history and other vital stats. Before they computerized, "everything was time-intensive and work-intensive--information was put on a piece of paper, and you couldn't share it," says Ben Taylor, one of the farm's co-owners. And even among so many championship horses, the man who makes the computers run is the ultimate stud.