Despite talk of an economic recovery on the horizon, countless lost jobs won't be replaced and IT organisations are still weighing layoffs as a way to cut operations budgets.
Recent survey data from Forrester Research shows more than 60% of IT managers expect to cut staff this year.
"Right now, even the boss is worried about his position," says Adam Lawrence, vice president of service delivery at talent and outsourcing service provider Yoh. "They are looking for staff accomplishments to take to their managers to justify the existence of remaining team members."
Here IT professionals and industry experts share 10 tips that could help tech workers stay in their employers' good graces and avoid being laid off, even as the economy begins its gradual recovery.
1. Dig in
IT workers in precarious employment positions need to take on extra work, log more hours and essentially show their employers they want to be there, experts say. With budgets remaining flat or down, IT managers are being asked to assess staff for reductions or potential outsourcing options. You don't want to be the employee who comes up short during such assessments.
"One key thing to remember is that when IT organisations are doing layoffs, they aren't looking for people to get rid of, they are determining which people to keep," says Beth Carvin, CEO of Nobscot, a maker of HR-related software based in Hawaii. "Take initiative and do things that would make the company want to keep an employee like you."
For instance, if your company is looking into expanding its wireless network, study up on the technology and offer that self-training as a resource. Or understand what skills might be missing from the team and try to fill the gap – without being asked.
"When I first started, I found there was a shortage of server load-balancing expertise," says Colt Mercer, a network engineer at Citigroup. "I spent my entire first week studying server load balancing and when an issue came up, I was able to show my worth."
2. Follow the money
IT workers should know what systems and projects ultimately will drive revenue for the business. And they should work to get assigned those projects.
"To the extent they can influence it, IT pros should land themselves on revenue-generating or customer-facing projects," says Sean Ebner, regional managing director for IT staffing and recruiting firm Technisource. "Internal roles are critical, but getting aligned with customers and those activities will make technical workers more valuable to business managers."
If business-related projects aren't immediately available, some advise IT workers to get involved with the sales team, offering up their technical know-how to help them close deals with potential customers.
"Tech workers can go above and beyond by bringing product delivery and sales closer together, and really lift morale because companies need all workers coming together to bring in business," says Michael Kirven, principal and co-founder of IT resourcing firm Bluewolf.
3. Feed your brain
Resources may be scarce, but experts recommend IT pros find low-cost training or other self-study options to expand their technical knowledge in ways that would benefit the company – and ultimately themselves.
"Technology workers need to be professional managers of their careers and in bettering themselves, their employers will also reap rewards," says Yoh's Lawrence.
Training, self-funded or at the expense of the employer, will show bosses that a worker not only wants to be on staff, but is still interested in advancing his career with that particular company.
"The key to keeping your job is demonstrating your return on investment. You cost your company a certain amount of money, but if you can show you are gaining value at no cost to them and that your knowledge will positively impact the bottom line in either cost savings or revenue growth, then you will be considered an asset," says Rich Milgram, CEO of Beyond.com, an online job board.
4. Become a business technology expert
It's not just something people say; IT staffers need to become business-savvy to advance their careers and essentially keep their jobs.
"It's been said often, but IT really needs to be a business enabler and not a problem fixer," says Chris Silva, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "High-tech workers who have had 'business-sensitivity' training, meaning they don't talk in technical terms to the business managers, will be kept longer than IT pros who can't translate the technology directly to business issues."
Coupling technology know-how with insight into what makes a business succeed can help staffers maintain a long career.
"We eliminated 100 positions in technology last year, but we are still aggressively hiring business analysts," says Perry Rotella, president of Society for Information Management (SIM) New York and CIO and senior vice president at Moody's. "Training our technical people and having them understand the business has been a long-term strategy for us."
5. Think cheap
Headcount reductions are often an effort to cut costs, but IT pros who prove to managers they can find inexpensive technology and reduce costs in-house could save their jobs.
"Think like the owner. Don't waste resources or buy things that really aren't critical," Nobscot's Carvin says. "Employees that are efficient are chosen to stay over those that act irresponsibly with budgets."
IT pros should not only check price tags, but also offer cost-effective alternatives to the status quo. Citigroup's Mercer introduced automation tasks that enabled his company to save time and money, while also avoiding downtime caused by human error.
"We had a lot of mundane tasks and I knew a few scripting languages so I was able to streamline workflows and become valuable in terms of our automation strategy," he explains.
6. Stay away from the drama
Most companies have a bit of in-office drama, but it's best to stay far away from the water cooler gossip during tough economic times.
"You really want to present yourself as a likeable person, a great citizen at work," says Lori Gale, president of online job board FastLane Hires. "Don't be one of those people that hangs around the water cooler gossiping and acting stressed out. You will call attention to yourself for the wrong reasons."
Be optimistic, adds Lauren Milligan, resume expert/job coach at ResuMAYDAY.com. "Everyone has problems, including your manager. Don't become an added source of problems," she says.
It's best to avoid making negative comments about your peers, too. "People that find and offer solutions are much more valuable than the people that identify problems and do little more," says SIM New York's Rotella.
7. Sell yourself
While many in IT aren't accustomed to the spotlight, experts recommend high-tech workers learn how to sell their skills to the company.
"Toot your own horn. This is not the time for humility. In the current business arena in which everyone is stretched thin, make sure your accomplishments are noticed," says Katie Prizy, communications specialist at IT talent provider Instant Technology.
And to be able to truly demonstrate their contributions to the company, IT pros need to be able to measure what their work has added to the bottom line.
"If you can't measure your own success and be able to clearly demonstrate how your technology work has benefited the company, then you can't expect managers to be able to when it comes time to reduce staff," Beyond.com's Milgram says.
IT workers should continually track and document where their ideas, work or processes changed technology systems for the better at the company. Having this information at the ready will enable IT pros to make a better case for themselves staying on staff.
"Track your technical and business accomplishments – if you do not continually evolve as an employee, you become less needed," says Elizabeth DeFazio, vice president at IT staffing and recruiting firm Instant Technology.
8. Mentor others
Share your knowledge, career experts say.
"IT people need to get out of the knowledge-hoarding mentality. They need to let people know what they know and share the knowledge and information willingly," Carvin says. "That will make them more invaluable to employers."
Knowledge can be a powerful thing, and sharing information that's critical to a company's technical success will impress managers.
"I am big on mentoring, and I spend a lot of time training others. People see me as approachable and come to me with questions, asking me for help," Mercer says. "The managers notice that people seem to naturally follow me and I assume that makes them want to keep me here."
9. Make yourself available
During the downturn, some groups in IT may not be as busy as others. IT pros in the groups that seem slow should be offering themselves up for projects in other departments.
"If companies have five people that administer the network, but one of them also knows servers, managers might get rid of the highly specialized worker in favor of that person that could be considered an IT generalist, working in many areas," says Bryan Sullins, principal tech trainer at New Horizons. "IT pros that won't cross those boundaries are hurting themselves."
Working on projects outside of the normal routine is valued by managers - and also helps IT workers add to their skills.
"One thing that helps is to be willing to take on new challenges, even if it is outside of your normal routine. I once had to project plan for a PBX upgrade, and I learned an immense amount about how they work," says Dwayne Whitmore, senior systems engineer in the technology services group for Carolinas HealthCare System. "The knowledge from that project helped me understand VoIP better."
Reaching out across the IT lines could ultimately save a job.
"IT pros should create as many relationships and alliances as possible in their organisation. The more people they know, the more they see the work of different groups first hand, the more likely they can make a case for being cross-functional and avoid layoffs," says John Reed, district president with Robert Half Technology.
10. Smile, be happy
Never underestimate the power of a positive attitude.
Presenting a positive attitude, despite the challenges, will help managers who are also taxed beyond their resources understand which employees are happy to be on the job.
"The person who with a smile takes on new challenges that alleviate some of the pains of the management team will become invaluable," Beyond.com's Milgram says. "As people are laid off, it creates an atmosphere around you that is very difficult. Remaining flexible, available and positive during such times is paramount."