Sunday, September 03, 2006

Saturday ... Another Week Slips Past ...

Here it is, Saturday night, and now I'm facing September.

Most folks don't mark the passing of time the way that I do. It's kind of interesting to watch me get more and more anxious as the year rolls past; you'd think that I'd be used to it by now. After all, I've had four decades of instability and insecurity from which to draw experience. Yet I'm never the calm, collected, ready-to-face-another-year kind of person. I'm the jittery, skittering little squirrel, rushing about to collect and shutter away as many nuts as I can for the long, potentially unfruitful winter to come.

You see, I'm a contractor in the IT field, and that's as uncertain as a frozen pond in March. If, for some reason, that's not a functional analogy for you, then it's as uncertain as the most uncertain thing you can think of in your context. :)

What that translates to, for those of you in other industries, is that I don't know if I'll have a job beyond the end of this year. While there's no guarantee that I'll have a job AT the end of the year, it's even less certain that I'll have one beyond the end of the year. For me, the world lives in six-month blocks of time; that's how long a contract extension lasts. I was told earlier this year that I'd been extended to the end of the year, but that meant very little to me after I watched no few than two other contractors get "extended" to the end of the year only to be released shortly after said extension. One of them was released less than six weeks after being given a raise for merit.

The promises of corporations don't mean anything anymore. I was promised a career with the last company I was with, and I got laid off four years into it. Sure, there was the whole industry cave-in during 1999-2000, and there was 9/11 in 2001, but somehow the company fared through all that and caught us with our knickers about our ankles in 2002 when an "organizational decision" was made to eliminate the jobs of 24 individuals, among whom I was numbered. It went on in other areas before affecting me, but we were told that we were "safe". I have since learned that there is no such thing as "safe".

Since that time, I haven't had a full-time job. The only work I've had has been as a contractor, and a low-level contractor at that. I'm not one of those highly-paid, flashy "consultants" that come in and bill companies for criminal amounts of money, or even one of those project managers that rush around and go to all the meetings to pass on what they're doing and then delegate what they're assigned to someone else. Nope, I'm the bottom-feeder, and if this were a different sort of work, I'd be called a "temp" instead of a "contractor". Pick your own euphemism, it's the same thing. I'm a commodity, a tool that's used like a spare tire to keep things moving until someone more permanent can be put in place.

It's not very comforting for me to say that, and it's even less so to live it. IT used to be an industry that was worth working in, but it's done this to itself. Those who worked in IT before the industry was forced to change (and quickly) can recall the "glory days" of the late '90's, when we were recruited all over the country if not the world for big salaries and with unproven skill sets. We wrote our own tickets and priced ourselves into fossildom; the cost of running an IT department wasn't even a company consideration before, it was just something that had to be paid, period. Whatever the cost of running the IT department/division, the company either found a way to pay it or went out of business. The hope was that these expensive people would position the company for that boon in the enigmatic "e-commerce" and give them the competitive edge that would balance the king's ransom they paid out to get to that successful plateau.

Of course, IT is now considered expendible. In just those short six or seven years, companies have starting looking off-shore for lower costs in technology personnel. Some companies don't have an IT department at all anymore, and what is being used for their technical support is likely based somewhere in China or India. What jobs are available here now only pay a fraction of the amount they did before the "crash" and are temporary positions so that someone new can be brought in and the pay scale reset every couple of years -- or worse yet, a couple of times a year. The qualifications for those positions can't be what they were in the late '90's, either; I've seen ads requiring -- yes, requiring -- more training than I'd been able to afford or garner over the last decade, and that has to be coupled with practical, working experience to match or it's a no-go. I know it's enforced too, because I've been turned away from positions for which I know I was over-qualified because of either training requirements or experiential requirements.

So, I'm again faced with a dilemma; do I train for more work in this industry, and possibly face this whole six-month life-cycle again, or do I try to find another way to make a living and see if I can score the same (or better) salary that it's taken me a full 10 years to rise to in THIS industry?

The question is one that I'm going to have to face sooner rather than later, because the end of the year is coming. If I survive the next 90 days, that is. I go in every day to work and work as hard as I can to demonstrate that I'm worth hanging onto, and worth the money I'm costing, but that doesn't always work. In today's corporate IT setting, I find it succeeds less and less, because the driving force is the bottom line, not the ability to be positioned in technology for the ambiguous future. Companies waited patiently for the over-burdened cost of IT to right itself, and fate took that one better. The industry didn't right itself, it capsized itself. Now, "business" has the upper hand and seems to relish leveraging that against the IT world that took advantage when it had the chance.

The gravy train stopped long ago, and now I have to decide what I'm going to do with my life until someone comes along and reads my blog then blurts "My GOD! You're a BRILLIANT writer! How would you like to write a book for me? Here's a multi-million dollar advance on the first thing you grind out!"

My options, while not great, are as follows:
  1. Continue down a path as a VB/VBA programmer, which will mean being a contractor forever probably, and is very risky. It's risky because I have no experience and will have to take whatever pay is offered and hope it's high enough to make ends meet.
  2. Take a new path. One fork of that new path is SQL; I can probably learn to be a database administrator, and get certified by someone for it, which would help get my foot into doors that are currently closed. On the other hand, I again have no experience doing that, and that leads me back to not being able to control the pay scale very well.
  3. The other fork in this new path leads me to SAP. Now, that's a whole other ball of wax, and isn't as easy -- or even as clearly defined -- as it sounds. There are a billion options for SAP, depending on what combination of things you want to do in that. In fact, SAP is almost an industry in an industry, and it's been kept a dark and mysterious vault of secrets for a long time. I have a penlight with which to navigate it. So, the first thing I have to do is find out what options are available to me in SAP, and then find out what training is required to pursue those options, and then find out what benefits that will provide me, and then commit to getting said training ... all before the end of the year.
So, based on all that, I'm looking for input anywhere I can get it. What, if anything, are the thoughts of those that happen across this blog? What, if any, suggestions can you offer me? What advice can you give? And if nothing else, where can I get a cup of coffee?

Stay tuned, faithful viewers ... the tension is rising.