By Katherine Spencer Lee | March 2007

Dice is pleased to introduce a new monthly IT career column, Ask the IT Career Doctor, with Katherine Spencer Lee, Executive Director of Robert Half Technology. Robert Half Technology is a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Once per month, Katherine will respond to an IT career-related question from a Dice reader. This month, she responds to an IT professional who supports an ERP system that is being phased out.

I took a four-year sabbatical after 30 years in IT as a programmer, mainframe systems programmer and performance specialist. I have a BS and MS in physics, computer science and management, as well as several years of experience designing and marketing support for call centers.

It has been a year since I began looking for work - no interviews, no interest and hundreds of submitted resumes. I'm CMM [Capability Maturity Model for Software] certified and would be happy to take a Six Sigma or CMMI [Capability Maturity Model Integration] class if that would do any good. But I'm frankly discouraged and need advice on where to direct my energy.

Katherine Lee Spencer responds:
Encouraging words can sound hollow to a frustrated job seeker, but you have real reason for optimism. Over the next decade, as much as 40 percent of the current workforce will be contemplating retirement. Bracing for this exodus of talent, employers will compete for the experienced workers who remain in the workforce and can help fill knowledge gaps.

Your long track record, extensive education and management expertise should set you apart from most applicants, but these qualifications also may raise an "overqualified" flag for some employers. Many IT veterans make the mistake of downplaying their many years of experience for fear of just such a response. By doing so, they sometimes miss out on a chance for a position with greater responsibility. Your management expertise and ability to mentor newer staff are substantial assets, but they won't leap from your resume or cover letter unless you specifically point them out. Market yourself as a self-starter who might command a slightly higher salary than a less experienced worker but who will ultimately cost the company less time and money in training and supervision.

Re-entering the job market presents some additional challenges. Though you were away for only a few years, that can seem like an eternity to some hiring managers because of the quick rate of change inherent in the IT world. You¿d probably benefit from a thorough "self-audit" of your skills, identifying your strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and preferences so you can better focus your job search and skills development. Are you still interested in the same areas as before, or has a new development in the technology field caught your attention? How well do your current skills match up with demand in your city?

Acquiring a new certification would be a good way to update your skill set and demonstrate that you¿re still committed to learning. Doing so may be particularly important in your case because the CMM designation you hold has been retired, and marketing an out-of-date certification will cause employers to pause. But don¿t acquire certifications for their own sake. Six Sigma and CMMI could be beneficial, as you suggest, but only if you're interested in pursuing a related career path. Most employers understand that there's no substitute for on-the-job experience.

A strong track record of consistently delivering IT projects on time and on budget, which you likely possess, is the type of attribute that hiring managers seek most - and is certainly worth highlighting in your cover letter and resume. According to a recent Robert Half Technology survey, relevant experience and soft skills such as interpersonal communication still outrank certification when employers make hiring decisions.

Since you were away from work for four years, you may want to format your resume to emphasize experience over chronology. But don't try to hide your time off, and be prepared to talk about it in an interview. By discussing ways you¿ve strengthened your knowledge base since leaving the workforce, you might allay concerns about your familiarity with new technologies and your enthusiasm for a continuing IT career.

Your difficulty landing interviews suggests that you also might want to reassess the approach you're taking when you reach out to potential employers. For example, do you have contacts within target organizations that you can leverage? Have you followed up with hiring managers after submitting your resume? Eighty-two percent of executives polled by our company said job seekers should follow up with prospective employers within two weeks of submitting application materials.

If you haven't done so already, get back in touch with your network. Colleagues who can't directly connect you to an attractive opening could put you in touch with others who can. You also might find advice from contacts who have faced some of the same challenges you're facing.

Your possibilities expand significantly when you open yourself up to opportunities beyond full-time positions. Temporary or project-based positions can give you a feel for the current landscape before you commit to a full-time position. Many staffing firms provide free training and can help you get your foot in the door at companies that use project-based positions as a means of evaluating potential full-time hires.

In addition, many IT professionals who have already had full careers are pursuing consulting opportunities in order to ease into retirement and take advantage of greater flexibility. In a Robert Half Technology survey of 1,400 CIOs, nearly half said they were likely to consider consulting or project work as a way to transition to retirement.

Finally, don't let your frustration affect the first impression you make on employers, whether it's in the form of a cover letter or an interview. Enthusiasm remains a key hiring criterion and differentiator among candidates.

Your experience is an invaluable asset - as long as you know how to let it shine. Emphasizing the unique value of your experience as well as your willingness to continue learning will help you transition back into the workforce.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.