Tech employers are rapidly slashing jobs ahead of a potential recession, but even the industry’s newest workers remain largely unbothered.
The recent wave of tech layoffs has begun to unwind the industry’s hiring spree during the coronavirus pandemic, when millions of Americans rode the “Great Resignation” into new jobs and careers. While the nation’s historically hot labor market is fitfully cooling down, many of the least experienced tech workers say their new skills and connections put them on firmer footing in case the economy deteriorates this year.
The weeks and months ahead will test their optimism. One basis for it, in the meantime, is that “upskilling” has already paid off for many.
Danielle Bridgewater, 29, was working as a librarian at a Long Beach, California, elementary school in 2020 when it shifted operations online. Hitting a wall with her $50,000 salary and growing weary of working from an empty room in an empty building, Bridgewater enrolled in a six-month UX/UI (user experience/interface) online boot camp with Trilogy Education Services, at the University of California, Irvine, nearby.
With that certification, Bridgewater landed a design internship at Webserv, an Irvine-based digital marketing firm. She was eventually promoted to lead designer and, in combination with a teaching assistant gig with Trilogy, netted a salary boost of $20,000, she said. Bridgewater said she went from renting a room with her extended family to having her own apartment and better financial and career security.
“I’m able to save money. I have a 401(k), something I’ve never had before,” she said. “I’m feeling really good about where it’s going.”
Public and private U.S. tech firms slashed more than 100,000 workers last year, according to Crunchbase. On Friday, Alphabet moved to ax 12,000 jobs, just days after Amazon began eliminating 18,000 roles and Microsoft announced 10,000 cuts of its own.
Still, three in four U.S. developers told hiring platform CoderPad that they felt confident in their jobs, matching the sentiments of their international peers in a global survey of developers and tech recruiters released Friday. Thirty-one percent of the U.S. developers said they felt more secure than a year ago, versus 22% feeling less secure. And in November — the month tech layoff announcements escalated from thousands to tens of thousands — Glassdoor found just 17% of industry workers had a negative six-month business outlook for their employers. That was up from 10% in January 2022, but the pessimists were far outnumbered, with 71% of tech workers feeling positive.
Many people spent Covid-19 lockdowns developing their digital skills, and plenty wound up switching from other sectors, like retail or education, into tech roles elsewhere. Joe Brusuelas, the chief economist at the consulting firm RSM, said they did so at the right time.
“They now have likely acquired skills that are in high demand, that are attached to wage premiums,” he said.
According to unpublished research by the National Skills Coalition training nonprofit and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, moving from a job requiring no digital skills to one demanding at least three generates an average 45% pay bump.
While Brusuelas said the slowing economy likely calls for workers to become “less risk-loving and a little more risk-averse,” demand for tech skills remains strong across industries. At least 59% of all tech jobs as of September were outside the tech sector itself, according to the industry group CompTIA, as a variety of other employers angle for more tech hires, including people cut from Silicon Valley firms.
In 2021, not long before she joined the San Antonio-based financial services company Victory Capital as a business intelligence developer, Stephanie Jones worked as a fraud prevention specialist for JPMorgan Chase. After a divorce from her husband, Jones, 37, enrolled in a six-month boot camp called CodeUp, looking for a career in data science that would offer more flexibility to care for their son, now 6. By joining Victory, she got the remote work environment she’d sought and more than doubled her salary to $75,000.
“I remember the first week: I’m asking my boss, ‘So what’s the start and stop time?’” Jones recalls. “He’s like, ‘Um, just get here in time for your meeting.’ It’s very much an environment of ‘just get your work done,’ and I thrive in those environments.”
Jones said that when she started hearing about tech industry layoffs so soon after earning her data science certification in March, “they were concerning.” But she said assurances from company leaders and her new professional momentum have shored up her confidence, at least for now.
“I do think anything is possible,” she said, “but I think I feel safer now, because I’m building a skill set where I have a little bit more control over my career.”
Jones also takes some comfort in her geography. Unlike in Silicon Valley, where layoff announcements have been popping up left and right, the tech scene in San Antonio has been growing.
I feel safer now, because I’m building a skill set where I have a little bit more control over my career.
Sarah Miller, the principal adviser for the Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said, “The tech function exists everywhere now.”
For newly hired tech workers, she said, “even with these big layoffs in the true tech field, those people are going to get gobbled up with other sectors so quickly that they’re not even going to reflect in the labor force participation rate.”
Not all tech newcomers are encouraged.
Jason Pinney, 48, works as an area director for Main Event Sports Grill in Vancouver, Washington. Disenchanted with the restaurant industry during the initial two pandemic years, Pinney earned first an MBA and then a master of science degree in data analytics online at Southern New Hampshire University. But since he wrapped up his masters (with a 4.0 GPA) in October, he said, he has yet to secure a single interview.
Pinney described the recent industry layoffs as “disheartening.” He said that unlike people trying to gain footholds in tech from office-based roles, he worried about being dismissed as “this guy who’s been in restaurants for 20 years.”
“I’m confident that once I get in front of somebody and sit down at a table, I can sell myself,” he said, “but getting that initial ‘Hey this guy looks interesting’? I can’t seem to get past that.”
There are signs that tech openings across all sectors are tightening.
Jobs platform Indeed said software developer listings are down 39.6% from last year as of January 13. Postings for mathematics roles, like data scientists, are down 31.2%. Federal jobs data shows roles in the “information” industry, which includes telecommunications and data processing, were down 5,000 in December from the month before. Professional and business services roles, which include engineering and “computer services,” were down 6,000 last month from November. And LinkedIn researchers now find the appeal of pivoting into tech from other fields is declining.
The combination of cooling inflation and the availability of tech roles outside the pricey Bay Area could mean the “wages that workers are willing to accept may, at least in some instances, come down,” said Mark Hamrick, a senior economic analyst at Bankrate. “Because they’re saying, ‘Oh, well, if I was in California last year, I needed 5 bucks for a gallon of gas, and now maybe I need $3.75” in a different state.
Even so, employers’ broad appetite for tech skills could put something of a floor under wages — and prop up the appeal of tech roles in general — even as the economy slows.
Tech compensation surged during the pandemic, as it did across the U.S. workforce in a labor crunch that shows few signs of relenting. Experienced tech workers, rather than those new to the field, largely drove those pay gains, the jobs platform Hired found in research published in September. But as Brusuelas sees it, competition for tech workers of all stripes “will remain fierce — even when and if the economy falls into recession around the middle or second half of 2023.”
Wage inflation may have peaked, he added, but “workers have figured out that they can bid up wages and obtain a premium that they could not have prior to the pandemic.”