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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Boston Globe Online / Business
[ Send this story to a friend | Easy-print version | Search archives ]

Former IT worker tires of drawn-out search yielding few job leads, plenty of frustration

By Kimberly Blanton, Globe Staff, 3/9/2003

Brian Clough experienced a miracle last week: He e-mailed an application for a job and someone e-mailed back.

That doesn't sound like much reason to shout for joy. But ever since Clough was laid off from Phoenix Technologies Ltd. in December 2001, he has sent out about 150 resumes for positions listed on job boards, eliciting just a handful of responses.

At age 38, Clough is deep in the heart of a generation of software programmers and other techno-wizards who don't know how to find work in anything but an up job market. The current high-tech depression is the first time in history that payrolls at software firms have shrunk.

Three years ago, employers came looking for them. In 1996, when Clough (pronounced Cluff) accepted a job at Phoenix's Norwood office, he had to decline an offer from another tech company. At the time, software writers who conducted their own searches simply posted a resume and waited for the job prospects to flood in.

Pounding the pavement, networking, cold-calling employers -- these generally are not among the skill sets of people whose geeky tendencies, once an asset, have turned into a liability in today's horrific job market. Clough's own job-hunting skills haven't developed too far beyond opening a can of Coca-Cola and plopping down in front of his homemade computer in a cramped apartment to search Internet job boards. ''The only way, really, to get a job these days is to know somebody,'' he says. ''That's not normally the way I operate. I don't feel ashamed in admitting I'm not a people person.''

There is hope, but not a lot. Unemployment among computer scientists nationwide hovers around 5.1 percent, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers -- triple the rate of just three years ago.

In high-tech hot spots such as Boston, Silicon Valley, and Austin, Texas, programming jobs evaporated and may never reappear. Companies have shifted a lot of this work to other countries, mostly India, where hiring of contract workers to write software and perform other technical jobs is growing 30 percent a year, says Deborah Besemer, chief executive of Brass Ring Inc. in Waltham. Brass Ring operates a website for technology job postings.

The high-tech job market ''will improve, but I don't believe it'll improve in 2003, and I believe there's been a permanent move overseas,'' she says.

However the future plays out, Besemer is certain of one thing: The market ''won't be the same.''

For Clough, a single man with no girlfriend and few friends, a 15-month bout of unemployment has been a lonely road. There are no longer colleagues with whom to exchange daily office banter, and many former Phoenix co-workers have scattered.

For entertainment, he can't afford much, outside of watching programs recorded on TiVo or, his hobby, taking digital pictures of trains, a lifelong fascination. He's down to his last $1,500 in savings from his Phoenix job, which paid $63,000 a year.

To survive, he will soon start a part-time job as a cashier at the betting window at the Plainridge Racecourse, a horse track not far from his home in the southwestern Boston suburb of Walpole.

His family gives him support but otherwise he feels helpless. ''I feed him,'' says his aunt, Linda Beeler, who scours job ads for her nephew while working as head reference librarian for Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy.

His father, Edward Clough, a retired grade-school psychologist in upstate New York, says he is baffled by the simultaneous reversal of both his sons' fortunes. A few weeks ago, his younger son, Steve, who lives in Silicon Valley, lost his high-tech marketing job. Their mother, Debby Clough, notes that Brian paid his own way through the State University of New York Institute of Technology at Utica/Rome after a stint in the Air Force.

''He doesn't want to come home and live in the little room in the basement,'' his mother says. ''But it's there if he needs it.''

Clough is more gregarious than he gives himself credit for. But he finds job hunting to be emotionally draining and has to get away from it. He hasn't yet worked up to calling firms that may have jobs in his field. He has barely networked, though he did recently join the 495 Networking Support Group after a revelation that he needs to try.

''When I wind up being disappointed, I have to step back and stop looking for a while,'' Clough says. ''I start asking myself, Is there any future in this industry?''

His specialty is writing ''embedded'' software, which are the invisible programs that make all sorts of hardware devices run, whether personal computers, which he programmed at Phoenix, or airplanes, which he programmed at Lockheed-Martin. The specificity of skills required to snare a programming job is impossible for an outsider to grasp: Checking job websites for anything new, he searches by using such keywords as ''8051'' or ''firmware.''

Last year, he had a single interview, at the Massachusetts Division of Employment and Training, which was lined up by a contact he developed at a Norwood jobs center -- the same contact who helped him get the job at the track. Clough was surprised even to get an interview. It was a job for a website developer.

When he e-mailed his resume last week, he could barely contain his excitement when the recruiter in Michigan e-mailed him several times looking for more information.

''Guess what, I actually got a response back from them,'' he says. He remains hopeful it could lead to something.

But the longer he is unemployed and out of circulation, the more Clough worries he may never get back into his field. Rapid changes in technology make programmers' skills quickly outmoded, and recent college graduates often possess fresher skills. Clough, who did state-of-the-art work at Phoenix, tries to read and stay current on the latest advances in technology. But with so many programmers out of work, competition is fierce. ''Someone who's been out of work two or three months,'' he says, ''is more up to date than I am.''

Kimberly Blanton can be reached at blanton@globe.com.

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 3/9/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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