Originally created 01/08/01

Tech work: Wave of the furure, or dead end?

Christine Hansen of Minneapolis, Minn., knows one thing for sure: She doesn't want to be an attorney anymore.

Call it a midlife crisis. Call it burnout. But Hansen, 48, has had enough.

She quit her job as a corporate securities attorney in July and, with the support of her husband, has been exploring career options.

Nina Hale made the switch to a high-tech career.

She's thought about a career in library science, a home business and even making instruments (she's a trained violinist). But there's one more career she's considering - technology.

"It's something I've thought about for a number of years," she said.

Like a lot of other folks, Hansen's interest in a technology job was piqued by several factors: the demand for high-tech workers, the promise of perks and good pay and the fact that the industry is so much in vogue.

Companies are trying to salve their shortage of high-tech workers by adding and enhancing in-house training programs and by sending their non-tech workers to tech school.

And schools are catching on. Some offer customized programs for businesses that can deliver on-site training geared toward mid-career people. And although getting started in a technology career may seem daunting, it could be easier than it looks, especially for those with preexisting skills - project management, for example - that can be used in a technology environment.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the number of people working as computer programmers will increase 21 to 35 percent annually through 2008.

And according to a recent study, the average annual wage for high-tech workers in the Twin Cities area, for example, is $54,381, compared with an overall average private sector wage of $35,635.

John Fennig, a self-described coach to career changers and managing partner of DRI Consulting in St. Paul, said he has noticed an upswing in the number of people who are considering a technology career.

But some may not be cut out for a high-tech career; he estimates three out of 10 people have the aptitude to fit within a high-tech environment. If they don't have the aptitude, they're redirected, he said.

"We're pretty committed to people being true to themselves," Fennig said.

That means when a client comes in for career counseling, the first thing they get is a "sanity check," a process that consists of interviews and testing that answers the question: "What do they love to do?"

Hansen is searching for that answer as she ponders her next career. "I want something that excites my passion," she said.

Finding a good fit also is important because while the high-tech field is often romanticized as exciting, fun, lucrative and free-spirited, in reality it is very challenging, Fennig said.

Most technology jobs require people to upgrade their skills every three to five years, if not sooner. "Those who have more difficulty learning new things are going to have trouble keeping up in tech jobs," he said.

Hansen realizes that after 15 years as an attorney learning technology would be hard work. Her main concern with a high-tech career is: "Should I get into this now?"

A few years ago she took an algebraic programming course and although she was able to grasp the concepts, it seemed like second nature for the younger people in her class, she said. She eventually ruled out learning an actual technological skill, such as programming, and inventoried her other skills.

"At the current time, what has the most appeal to me is teaching," she said.

Not classroom-style, but teaching beginners how to set up a computer. "I have the rudimentary skills," she said.

And because she has communication and leadership skills, she has considered management positions such as a project leader.

Good idea, said Doug Berg, chief techie of techies.com, an Edina, Minn.-based Web career portal. Leveraging the skills and capabilities that you already have may be the best way to get into the technology field, he said.

Roz Mallet, senior vice president of human resources for Carlson Companies Inc. of Minnetonka, Minn., agrees. Leadership and organizational skills are transferable, she said. Managers overseeing a group of software developers don't necessarily need a technology degree.

For example, a vice president of marketing could easily transfer those skills to a high-tech marketing position.

Nina Hale personifies such a leap. After being laid off from GE Capital in April, she used her product development know-how to land an Internet job.

Hale considered a job at U.S. Bank but had her heart set on a dot-com. She was attracted to the excitement of the industry and the opportunity of working in the New Economy.

"I wanted to learn the skills. I wanted to be in that kind of a job," she said.

It wasn't long - about a month - before she landed a business development position at Digital River, an Eden Prairie, Minn., electronic-commerce company. As Hale learned more technical skills, her position at Digital River evolved and now she directs marketing for National Geographic's e-commerce site. She said she is continually challenged learning the technical aspects of the job.

"I'm learning so much right now," she said. "I've completely reinvented myself."

But dot-coms do have a down side. The industry is in a shakeout and many once fast-growing dot-com companies are rapidly shrinking through layoffs.

But Hale said she has faith in her company and isn't worried because the skills she has acquired at Digital River will be applicable to future jobs.

"Moving into a purely tech job makes you very marketable," she said.

Technology experts point out that nearly nine of 10 technology jobs are in non-technology companies.

Perhaps one of the best ways to get a technology job is to lobby your boss, Berg said. Tell the boss you're interested in working on any of the company's technology-oriented projects. "Become incredibly interested," he said. "It shows your ambition."


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