With global stock markets in flux and the U.S. economy either in the midst of a recession or teetering on the edge, there are steps you can take that may help protect your IT job.

It may not be a bad idea to start thinking about such things, say several employment experts who are closely watching job statistics and other economic indicators.

“Right now, in this day and age, if anyone is working in IT, the closer you work on relationships with customers, the better the opportunities you’re going to have,” said Jim Lanzalatto, vice president of strategy and marketing at staffing agency Yoh LLC in Philadelphia. “That’s in any economic environment, but it’s more critical in this economic environment.”

Follow the customers

In tough times, he said, the first IT projects to be eliminated are the ones that are farthest away from creating customer value, such as internally-faced projects. To have a better chance of keeping your job, you want to be involved in work that is customer-focused. “Things around infrastructure and security, they’ll always get done,” he said.

“The ones that are directly related to customer value — such as projects around CRM, customer portals, revenue management — those are the projects that have the greatest staying power,” Lanzalatto said. “Customers are king right now. Revenues which grow are paramount right now for companies.”

“I would get involved in those projects, absolutely,” by volunteering to help or gaining needed new skills, he said. “This is the place for IT workers.”

The job concerns will also depend on where you do your IT work, he said. “The one thing we have learned from our customers is this is going to be more of an industry-driven issue,” Lanzalatto said. “If you’re a project manager for a bank or a financial services company, that’s a precarious place right now, because those industries are having tough times. But if you take a market, let’s say consumer products, things are much more stable. Being in the right place at the right time, you have to be opportunistic.”

Much will depend on how long and serious any impending recession turns out to be, he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic. I think that’s the right term right now. In the tech, engineering and scientific communities, there’s pent-up demand from customers. There are projects in the pipeline, budgets have already been set, so those are big pluses in the marketplace” because that work is already under way. “The current demand is still strong, and that’s where the optimism comes in.”

At the same time, he said, things could change quickly. “The cautiousness comes from the unbearable lightness of being. You just don’t know what’s around the bend.”

Another factor to consider, he said, is the definition of an economic recession — several consecutive quarters of decline as measured by the gross domestic product. “So have we seen that fundamental already, or is it just a fear?” Lanzalatto asked. “I’m not an economist, but everybody’s got that fear in their heads right now. Is that going to turn into a reality?”

Stay friendly with the boss

If you want to successfully weather the current economic difficulties, you must “make yourself indispensable,” said John Challenger, president of Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

“Make sure your relationship with your boss is in good repair,” Challenger said. “That way, if the boss is told to make cuts, there may be people more competent but who have a worse relationship” with managers. “It’s easier to get rid of people they don’t get along with.”

If your relationship with your manager isn’t good, then “go work at it,” he said. “You don’t want the relationship too distant. You certainly don’t want it to be too negative.”

Another tip, is to find the IT projects that are essential to your company and “look for ways to get into those areas if you are not there already,” Challenger said. “Sometimes it’s volunteering to work in other areas or … becoming a reliable backup to others. Your boss might also be let go in a layoff, too, so no one else may know who you are. This is a good time to be engaged in company events” that give you more face time with higher-level managers and executives so they can see your value.

“The more things that you’re the backup on, you’re the utility player on, the more they can count on you when the chips are down, the better,” he said.

Another smart strategy, according to Challenger, is to take on a second job if you’re worried about your current position. That strategy could be especially useful if you can then turn the second job into a full-time job if your company begins downsizing, he said.

Based on current economic indicators, Challenger said he doesn’t expect to see big job cuts in IT right now, but that could certainly change.

“If there is a real recession, and companies cut back on their capital spending, it’s likely that there will be job losses and difficult times, Challenger said, although he’s not convinced those times have come, because the economy has been strong up until now.

“We haven’t seen that much damage in jobs numbers yet,” he said. December wasn’t good, but that was only one month. The risks are going up, and the market is saying we’ve got a recession coming, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion yet.”

Blogger Michael Scoble, former Microsoft Corp. technology evangelist, today posted a list of “if-you’ve-been-laid-off” tips on his Scobleizer blog, with much of the advice based on his own experiences of being laid off from IT jobs in the past. “Right now, it seems like a bad time to be laid off,” he wrote. “I’m here to offer some hope.”

Among his suggestions are the following: start a blog on the IT field in which you want to work, so prospective employers can see your skills; takes steps that will get you recognized as a leader in the work area you want to pursue; and go to any job networking session you hear about.

Christa Baker, the New England and New York area manager for Milwaukee-based employment services company Manpower Professional, said that if IT layoffs increase as a result of a deeper recession, workers will need to have fresh skills and be on top of their games to find new jobs.

“If you’re not ready or well-positioned to say, ‘I have a skill set that can be leveraged in this other group’ … then that’s going to put [you] at a disadvantage.

“If you can’t do something for your organization that you can bring to the table, then I don’t even know if sucking up [to your bosses] is going to help you,” Baker said.

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