Dan Rafter Special to the Tribune

Chicago Tribune
(Copyright 2000 by the Chicago Tribune)

These days, everyone wants to hire Ari Kaplan.

Recruiters fill his e-mail box with benefit-laden job offers. They ring his telephone 24 hours a day, promising positions with fat salaries and flexible hours. When they bump into him during conferences, they pitch him dream jobs that come with free massage services and on-site game rooms.

It's gotten to the point where Kaplan turns his phone's ringer off when he heads for bed. The recruiters from Russia, India, Sweden and other far-off locales think nothing of calling him at 2, 3 or 4 in the morning.

Kaplan works as an independent technology consultant, a member of the Information Technology, or IT, workforce. He's not the only IT worker attracting job offers by the bunch. People like Kaplan are in demand these days, as companies seek help building Web sites, running electronic databases and wiring themselves for the growing world of e- commerce. They're offering experienced IT workers, the folks who know how to build these Web sites and databases, everything from astronomical salaries to perks such as free dog-walking services or annual skiing vacations.

"This is one of the best times to work in this field," said Chicago resident Kaplan, who is currently consulting with the Chicago Board Options Exchange and helping officials with the Montreal Expos baseball team update their computerized scouting operations. "If you have experience, you're almost guaranteed to get a job that you want, at any location that you want."

Companies are doing everything they can to attract IT workers because there aren't enough of them out there. Recent studies show that the number of IT workers is rising at a far slower pace than is the demand for their services. And the shortage is especially felt in the Midwest and Chicago, where old-style corporate institutions have finally discovered the benefits of selling their products over the Internet, creating a big demand for computer-savvy workers.

But the flood of job offers can tempt IT workers into being less than cautious. Faced with all the perks and ballooning salaries, technology workers can easily forget one thing: Work that isn't satisfying or challenging will still be unpleasant, no matter how many pool tables or foosball machines a company puts in its break rooms.

"When everyone offers the perks, it almost becomes a sort of entitlement," said Michael Soenen, president and chief executive officer of Consolidated Commerce, a technology company based in Chicago. "You can throw money hand over fist at people. You can offer them massage services. But if you don't offer challenging work, the people you find aren't going to be happy."

A study released earlier this year by the Information Technology Association of America said that employers will create a demand in this country for about 1.6 million IT workers in the year 2000. Half of these positions, about 843,328, will go unfilled, association officials say, because there aren't enough IT workers to go around.

Things are especially tough in the Midwest, according to the study. Midwest employers have the largest number of openings of any region for IT workers, accounting for about 35 percent of the total demand.

The reasons for this Midwest shortage are numerous, said Harris Miller, president of the Virginia-based association. Many Midwest companies have been slow to adapt to technology, he said, and now are doing so with a vengeance. At the same time, Midwest schools haven't been offering as many IT courses and programs as have schools on the West Coast, he said.

Then there is the perception that computer science graduates from outside the area have of the Midwest.

"Graduates have a tendency to think of traditional IT centers like Silicon Valley when they begin looking for jobs," Miller said. "Chicago does have a tremendous amount of software companies, but when you think of traditional IT centers, you don't think of the Midwest."

This comes as bad news to Midwest employers but great news to local people looking for IT jobs.

Here are just two examples of how the Midwest's IT labor shortage is impacting companies and potential employees:

At Chicago's Illinois Institute of Technology, more than half of the school's computer science students land high-paying jobs or long- term internships during their junior years, said Carl Mueller, an instructor at the department. While going to school and working 20 hours, these students are earning salaries equal to or better than many of the college's faculty members, Mueller said.

Meanwhile, at Northern Illinois University, 155 area companies offer standing internships to computer science students, said Rod Angotti, chairman of the school's computer science program. One of the students in Angotti's department is earning $27.50 an hour during his internship, a figure that equals a $55,000 annual salary.

This year, there will be anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 job offers made to Northern's 200 computer science graduates, Angotti said.

"IT workers are winning in many ways," said Ilya Talman, president and founder of Roy Talman & Associates, a Chicago recruiting firm specializing in technology workers. "They can find exactly what they want. They'll get multiple offers. If they make a mistake (and take the wrong) job, there's no penalty. They'll be back on the market and find a new job quickly."

Juggling a multitude of job offers is an attractive problem for technology workers, but it's still a problem. It's not easy for an IT worker to pick a job when five companies are offering her benefit- laden packages. That's why local employers advise IT workers to ignore the perks and instead focus on the work when they're examining potential positions.

"The individuals we talk to get a lot of offers," said Steve Colbourn, a recruiting director in Chicago for Andersen Consulting. "But it all boils down to what happens on a job on a day-to-day basis. What challenges you? What assignments will you be working on? . . . Some companies offer stock options. Others offer a lot of perks. But workers need to look at the nature of the work they're going to be doing."

Colbourn's message is simple: As in any field, work can become repetitive. If a company isn't using the latest technology, or experimenting with new programs and products, its work can become routine. This will lead to dissatisfaction for an IT worker, especially for one who wants to keep pace with his ever-changing industry. A foosball machine in the lunchroom won't change that.

Job seekers, if at all possible, should talk with a company's current employees. They're the ones who are most likely to give an honest review of working conditions. They can also talk to former employees, who may have left the company because of workplace troubles.

IT workers should never get complacent, experts say, even if companies are throwing job offers their way. Few fields experience change as rapidly as does the technology industry.

This means that companies are especially interested in technology workers who possess a wide variety of skills. "The best IT workers will be flexible," said Sheldon Schure, divisional vice president working out of the Oak Brook office of Houston-based COMSYS, a supplier of IT services. "Everything that's hot today can change in two years. This business is forever changing."

Still, IT workers should enjoy this time. There's no guarantee that they'll be as hot a few years from now. Perhaps the Midwest's IT worker shortage will shrink, or the demand for such workers' skills will erode. For now, though, technology workers are in an enviable position.

Back to Ari Kaplan's Home Page



will erode. For now, though, technology workers are in an enviable position.

Back to Ari Kaplan's Home Page