In a job market notoriously heavy on the lower-end, lower-paying variety, positions for highly skilled tech workers stand out as the exception in metro Atlanta these days.
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Tech skills put workers in control

Programming specialists can write ticket, move from job to job.

The upside isn’t hard to figure out.

High pay, flexible hours, a choice of jobs, the chance to work at the leading edge of your field, walk away when you get tired of it and walk back in when you want.

And did we mention high pay?

“There are not enough talented people to fill the jobs,” said Rob MacLane, president of Atlanta-based 3Ci, a staffing company that places hundreds of techies at jobs around the area each year. “If you have a skill that is in high demand, you have a lot of leverage.”

In a job market notoriously heavy on the lower-end, lower-paying variety, positions for highly skilled tech workers stand out as the exception in metro Atlanta these days.

Demand for some specialties is rising faster than the supply of people who have or are in the process of getting those skills.

“Opportunities come almost every day – you just turn on your phone and see the opportunities,” said Qasim Shahid, 34, of Marietta, a graduate of the University of Alabama school of engineering. He was speaking from St. Martin, where he was taking a couple of weekdays to relax before a presentation.

In-between time is built in to many techies’ lifestyles: Rather than hire on permanently with one company, some go from one short-term project to another, with contracts typically running from three months to a year.

“I don’t know any high-skill developer who has to go more than two or three weeks without work,” Shahid said.

Georgia has about 260,000 officially unemployed people. Nearly 40 percent have been looking for a job for at least six months. The median length of unemployment is about 10.5 weeks.

Job search looks a lot different to techies, said Veanne Smith, senior vice president and co-founder, SolTech, an 18-year-old software and staffing company.

“It’s an engineer’s market,” she said. “Engineer salaries used to cap out around $120,000 a year and now it’s $150,000.”

Of course, you need the smarts and dedication to gain the skills. And it helps to have a few years in the field. But those things don’t matter like they used to, Smith said.

“The biggest phenomenon is that engineers coming out of school used to make $40,000 and now it’s $75,000 – and before you know it, they are at $100,000.”

A skills shortage is great for workers who have them, but it also raises hiring costs and can dampen innovation and expansion. That is more pronounced for smaller, newer companies with less cash. They often use stock options and other incentives to recruit.

On the plus side, word of higher wages in an area can draw techies from elsewhere and make local jobs more attractive specialized grads from in-state universities such as Georgia Tech. Some of that is happening, but not enough yet, say the local tech experts.

Why is demand for techies outpacing supply?

Some of it is fueled by a trend toward dividing – and budgeting – work into discrete projects with a start and a finish, said Tino Mantella, president of the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).

Some companies also like the idea of not paying for workers when they don’t have a clear mission for them. They hire them when needed, not unlike the “just-in time” principle many companies use in keeping costs low by not carrying a lot of material that isn’t going to get used right away.

And an older wave of tech employees is reaching retirement age.

Tech permeates

Even more important is the change in business itself, Mantella said. Tech slots are not just in tech companies anymore.

“Technology just permeates everything we do. We have tech-enabled companies. Look at Coke or Home Depot … technology runs through everything they do. How you make payments. How you protect your data. There may be more tech workers in Coca-Cola than in a tech company.”

That trend has been rising amid a weak flow of students coming out of high school with technical and math specialties, he said.

“There are shortages in all the tech sectors. The shortage is significant. I have been in meetings where people bang a fist on the table and say, ‘I just can’t find fifteen Java developers.’”

Georgia has 280,000 tech jobs, according to TAG. That number is more than twice as high as the government’s estimate, a discrepancy that TAG pegs to having different definitions. The government says growth has been uneven. TAG says tech is rising steadily.

TAG says the state had 4,160 open IT jobs in December, up from 3,650 openings the previous December.

Do you speak SQL?

The most common openings – 25 percent of the total – were for systems engineers and support techs. The most commonly desired skills were in the ability to handle the likes of Windows OS, Java, C++ and SQL.

But there are fewer openings for some skills that are even harder to find. For example, the ability to work with programming languages like Dot Net and even newer tools like Swift or Xamarin or Phonegap.

With expertise in the right computer languages a techie can work in the hot zones of high tech for consumers and companies:

— Mobility. The Age of the Smart Phone means hundreds of millions of people are ready to use the device in their hand to read, shop, find cheap gas, book hotel rooms, meet strangers. But someone needs to write the apps to make it happen.

— Big Data. As consumers and citizens, American now leave massive amounts of information on corporate databases. Companies are racing each other to analyze and predict consumer behavior in ways that boost sales – and someone needs to write the algorithms that drive buyers.

— Security. The last several years have featured a string of high-profile data breaches – corporate, government and otherwise. They have included Home Depot, Target, Ashley Madison and the Georgia Secretary of State’s database.

The result is an intense desire to put cyber-padlocks on huge and valuable vaults of data. And somebody has to write the software that keeps the combinations secret.

Keeping up a challenge

Alfredo Hayag, 40, of Atlanta is an integration architect who finds ways for various applications to “talk to each other,” sharing data and operating in concert. He’s been an IT contractor since about 2002.

He likes the excitement of working on interesting projects, he doesn’t mind the unpredictability of the schedule. And of course, he very much enjoys the size of the paychecks.

But it’s not guaranteed, not if you get lazy about staying at the front of the curve, he said.

“You just want to make sure you keep up with new terms, new trends, the things that people are talking about,” he said. “Things are good as long as you keep evolving your skills.”

He currently on contract to a local tech firm. He has a family, so if the job ended tomorrow, he wouldn’t want to go without work for too long. And he doesn’t think he’d have to.

“If this ended, I’d probably be out about two weeks.”

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