Chicago Job Numbers Down, But Employers Still Seek ‘Passive’ Candidates

Front-end and back-end Web development is hot, with contractors getting the lion’s share of the work.

July 2009

The recession may have taken a little longer to hit Chicago than other areas of the country, but that’s scant comfort to the technology folks there who are looking for work.

Home to a number of Fortune 500 and 1000 companies with large IT departments, the Windy City is considered a large and important market for IT professionals. According to the Chicago Tech News Web site, the area has a significant concentration of technology-based businesses, with more than 500 firms. According to AeA’s 2008 Cybercities study, 11,000 high-tech establishments are set up in Chicago, the third most in the nation. And, the city remains a critical location for computer systems design and telecommunications development and services.

ChicagoThe average tech worker in Chicago earned $81,400 in 2006, the latest figures available. That was 66 percent more than the area’s average private sector wage.

All that’s well and good, but it hasn’t shielded the local tech sector from the recession. Many large companies have cut back on IT projects, resulting in a drop in new job openings for once in-demand skill sets, like those of business analysts, project managers and quality assurance testers. Those job have been delegated to IT workers lucky enough not to get a pink slip.

On Dice, job postings in Chicago showed a 49 percent decrease in May 2009 compared to the previous year.

"As companies put projects on hold or didn’t start new projects, there were an abundance of skill-sets on the market," says Kathy Northamer, senior vice president of Robert Half Technology’s Chicago-based office. "Companies started doing a lot more with less. For instance, positions for quality assurance testers went down a lot. Developers were asked to do more and test their own code."

Chicago Job PostingsOne of the main skill-sets in demand is front- and back-end Web development, says Northamer. It’s an area that’s remained strong as companies continue to invest in the Web in an attempt to maintain or strengthen their market presence. "It’s an area (where companies) feel they need to stay innovative and interesting to their customers in order to stay ahead of the competition," observes Northamer. "Web developers need to be savvy to understand how to take something from a content management system and make it into an active Web page." She adds: "It’s a higher percentage of our business than it was last year." 

Marty Murphy, a professional placement consultant for Manpower Professional’s Chicago office, says many of these Web development roles are contract positions. "Some are full-time but the majority are contract jobs," he reports. He’s also has noticed his clients have cut back on infrastructure-based expertise and help-desk or desktop support. Those tasks have been absorbed by existing IT workers. And while firms in the midst of, say, a large SAP ERP implementation continued on with the project, many small initiatives were put on hold.

Overall, Murphy has started to see the decline in positions level off. "Clients still are willing to pay a fee for the elusive, passive candidates," he says. "Some of the best of the best are still working, and a lot of companies are not batting an eye to pay for that talent, even with the current economic conditions."

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