As bad as 2009 was for employment in the U.S.—and it was truly terrible—the CIO job market picked up during the latter half of the year, according to executive recruiters who believe the increase in CIO job openings and search activity is a positive sign of what's to come in 2010.
"The bottom was reached in the first quarter [of 2009], and it started to turn around mid-summer," says Mark Anderson, president of ExecuNet. "Right now we're definitely seeing the market rebound for CIOs and [for executives] across the board. We're seeing about a 23 percent increase in the number of jobs being posted in our private network from the fourth quarter of 2008 to the fourth quarter of 2009."
Anderson adds that executive recruiters polled by ExecuNet in December anticipate a 19 percent increase in search assignments in 2010. Last year, search assignments were down 30 percent from 2008, according to ExecuNet, so the 20 percent increase in 2010 won't quite recover the business lost in 2009.
Shawn Banerji, a recruiter with Russell Reynolds Associates' Information Officers and Business and Professional Services practices, says his firm witnessed "decent" hiring through the second half of the fourth quarter of 2009. "We were booking one to two new CIO searches every week," he says.
Interestingly, notes Banerji, the CIO job market began to thaw when search activity traditionally slows: mid- to late summer (when most professionals are on vacation) and at the end of the year (when attention turns to the holidays and time off).
Dice.com, which targets IT professionals, observed a similar uptick in employment activity during the second half of the year. By the end of December, the number of jobs advertised on Dice exceeded over 50,000, up from a low of about 45,000 job ads in the middle of the year.
"That's unusual," says Dice.com CMO Tom Silver. "Typically we see job count drop off toward the end of the year. I look at that as a sign of encouraging things to come in 2010."
Trends Driving the CIO Job Market
Several trends set the stage for the CIO job market to begin its rebound during the second half of 2009 and to continue through 2010.
First, stimulus money that the U.S. government allocated to industries such as health care, green energy and green technology spurred hiring in those areas, even at the bottom of the recession, says ExecuNet's Anderson.
Pent-up demand for talent also played a role in the hiring rebound, says Banerji. "August popped because people didn't do a lot of hiring in May, June and July," he says, adding that clients realized they needed to make some key hires to get their businesses ready for 2010.
Signs of a slow economic rebound, including 2 percent economic growth during the third quarter, spurred fourth quarter CIO hiring.
"The back half of the fourth quarter was strong because people felt more encouraged," says Banerji. "The stock market had been up for a number of consecutive sessions, and let's face it, that's the psychological barometer of our economic confidence."
In the media and entertainment industries, employers are looking for CIOs with a different skill set, says Banerji, and that's driving new hiring. Media and entertainment companies want visionary IT leaders who embrace emerging social media and Web 2.0 technologies, who can explain to other executives how these technologies will impact their businesses, and who'll spend 80 percent of their time planning ways to incorporate these technologies in new product development, adds Banerji.
In other industries, the ongoing need to comply with increased regulatory scrutiny, operate more efficiently and be prepared for the rebound is causing companies to begin hiring new CIOs.
The Year Ahead
Going into 2010, ExecuNet's Anderson expects involuntary turnover (a.k.a. layoffs), to decrease among CIOs, since most employers took care of cutting their management teams at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009.
Headhunters also anticipate voluntary turnover among CIOs—that is, CIOs who are leaving their jobs of their own free will to pursue new career opportunities—to spike with the recovery.
Part of the reason the CIO job market in 2009 was so bad was because there were so few openings due to voluntary turnover. CIOs in "safe jobs" didn't dare leave them, notes Anderson.
The rise in voluntary turnover that's expected as the economy recovers in 2010 will create more openings for CIOs, observes Martha Heller, an executive recruiter with ZRG Partners and CIO contributor.
Though there will undoubtedly be more job opportunities for CIOs in 2010 than in 2009, the market will remain competitive for job seekers because employers' expectations of candidates "will be very, very high," says David Brown, a partner with executive search firm Cavoure Advisors. "Their criteria [for hiring a CIO] will be more refined and more specific than in years past because they're more knowledgeable about the function and the contribution it can make inside the company."
CIOs who wish to move on to bigger and better career opportunities will need to possess experience that the hiring organization feels it doesn't have today, adds Brown. "Companies are going to hire people because they can make a difference—not just to fill a chair."
Overall, Brown is hopeful about the CIO job market specifically and the executive search business in general, but he predicts bumps in the road ahead. "There's going to be bright lights and disappointments for recruiters, for companies hiring and for individuals seeking opportunities," he says.
Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.