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By Susan Gregory Thomas, US News

If there is any part of the Sunday help-wanted ads that can make a job seeker feel optimistic, it's the computer section. In most U.S. cities, it is crammed with listings. About 80 percent of recruitment ads in Silicon Valley's San Jose Mercury News are for high-tech jobs for software programmers and developers and software and hardware engineers--with annual salaries starting at $25,000 and reaching as high as $130,000. On some weekends, the section is so stuffed with such ads that it's half the size of the rest of the paper. Such abundance might suggest that all one must do to get such a high-paying job is take a few classes at a local college or computer center. Not quite.

"The idea that all you have to do is to lock down some skills and get a little experience and the computer world will be at your door is wrong," says John Challenger, president of the Chicago-based management consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. So, what of the want ads? And what of the U.S. Department of Commerce report of a massive shortage of qualified candidates to fill high-tech jobs? Indeed, the latest estimates are that more than 100,000 are needed every year until 2006 to fill the 1 million-plus positions that will be created.

Rare nerds. Many employers say such forecasts are misleading. They are raising the standard for the qualified candidate, particularly when it comes to top-paying information technology, or IT, jobs that call for a manager to develop software, hardware, or an Internet-related product. "Increasingly, computer professionals need to be very good business professionals," says David Weldon, senior editor in charge of Computerworld's Information Technology careers coverage. "Employers are really asking candidates to be supermen, but they're also recruiting more aggressively to find qualified workers and paying them three times as much as they have in the past several years." People who can design databases or write programs in the Java language and who have experience in business, particularly in the financial sector or marketing, are in the highest demand in almost any industry.

"I have a stack of résumés 3 feet high of rejects, and it's not because these candidates didn't have technical backgrounds," says Andrew Popell, co-founder of San Francisco-based Harvest Technology, a software company that develops applications for portfolio managers in the financial industry. "It's because we're looking for extremely skilled software developers who also have business skills. Finding those people is very difficult, so once we do, we have to be flexible in the way we structure compensation."

The candidates Popell and his competitors seek are often courted by several companies at once--in some cases, without so much as an interview. "One guy I was trying to hire flew in from Germany to meet with me," recalls Popell. The recruiter Popell used apparently knew the prospect was in town: "From the minute my candidate hit the ground, he had five job offers, sight unseen," he says. In the end, Popell persuaded the prospect to work for Harvest Technology on the grounds that it was simply a more interesting place to work. "We offered essentially the same salary as everyone else, but we offered him the opportunity to work with a really compelling combination of technologies," he says.

With fierce competition like that, the tiny pool of well-qualified applicants can name their price and job. They are shoo-ins for prime positions such as project manager or manager of Internet/intranet technology. They can just as easily go the hired gun route and do freelance consulting on, say, E-commerce or online marketing strategy. The need is so great for this rare combination of talents that desperate recruiters will often overlook a lack of experience and offer top-paying jobs to freshly graduated students of business schools with specialized Masters of Business Administration programs in business and high-tech, like the ones offered by top-notch Stanford University's Graduate School of Business and University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

But many job seekers don't have the time or the money to enter an MBA program. An alternative, and an excellent short-term plan, is to secure freelance work as certified technician by enrolling in a MCSE or CISCO class. Such work is also an opportunity for retirees with such experience and can lead to a full-time position in other IT work, such as systems administration.

Network, or LAN, management is also a hot category, and it's a career that will last beyond the year 2000. The best way for people with no previous experience to qualify for such a position is to earn certification from a major networking company. The document certifies that you understand and can manage the complexities of networking. Currently, Microsoft Windows 95 and, increasingly, Windows NT are the most common operating systems. Depending on which Microsoft certificate you pursue, the class, materials, and the requisite final exam can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to more than a thousand. For complete course descriptions and to find a test center near you, go to Microsoft's Training & Certification site (www.microsoft.com/traincert/ie30.htm).

So, who's hiring? High-tech job surveys indicate that government, utilities, transportation, and business services are the top three industries, hiring the most IT workers, followed by health care and medical services, computer manufacturing, and education. According to Computerworld's latest survey, the fastest growth in information technology hiring was reported in what used to be called the rust belt (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin) and in the southeastern states (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia).

Oddly enough, using technology to submit your résumé may not be the best way to get a high-tech job. IT recruiters say that though Web-based résumé databases such as the Monster Board (www.monsterboard.com) may look like good places to start a job search, the online pool is often flooded with under-qualified applicants. Many IT employers turn to high-tech headhunters to find the best candidates. So you may get quicker results by faxing or E-mailing your résumé to one of those firms.

Source US News



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