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Publications > Dateline Houston > May 2003 > Feature Article


Volume 42, Issue 9

May 2003

Technical Communication Job Market

Where We've Been, Where We Are, Where We're Going

by Rahel Anne Bailie, Region 7 Director-Sponsor

Before I launch into my opinions about present trends in the technical communication field, I feel I should provide a bit of context for my comments. I entered the technical communication industry in the late 1980s, when the personal computer market was just taking off. In fact, I worked for a PC manufacturer—working on the documentation launching of their line of 286 computers.

I've worked in the field through the economic downturn of 1992, the boom years of the late 1990s, and the recent downturn of 2002. My experience has given me a long look at where we've been, which is important when looking at where we're going.

Major Industry Trends and Shifts

The number of technical writers seemed to grow exponentially in the 1990s. It was the "weatherproof" profession that grew, first because of the proliferation of software programs being created for personal computers, and later because the need for technical communicators grew as the presence of the Internet became as ubiquitous as the presence of the personal computer itself.

Four important industry shifts took place during the 1990s. First, technical communicators working in the software industry radically shifted the focus of the profession by establishing new trends such as single sourcing, visual communication, and document design.

Second, technical writers were expected to increase their breadth of skills: learning word processing to input our own text, learning desktop publishing software to design our own documents, and even drawing our own graphics using graphic programs. We became technical communicators with a stronger skill set--with a steeper learning curve. Third, these changes brought new ways of working: shorter publication cycles with consolidation of tasks, and an increased breadth of skills. Fourth, many of us moved into spin-off professions and, though we stayed under the STC umbrella, we became content developers and translation coordinators, defining ourselves in broader terms.

In the early 2000s, the downturn began in the telecommunications industry and seemed like it would never bottom out. Companies made deep cuts, and technical communicators moved into adjacent career spaces to continue working in the industry: marketing communication, instructional design, or new work such as interaction design, usability analysis, or information architecture.

Employment Trends

Today, the biggest single issue seems to be unemployment. Technical communicators are looking for jobs, but the jobs aren't coming. They're not being listed on the job banks, and they're not being published in the newspapers. And though the job market in North America seems to have turned the corner, far too many technical communicators are still looking for jobs instead of working. So where is the disconnect?

One of the shifts I see in the marketplace is that, while there is much work available, there are few jobs listed for such work. Companies don't want to post an ad on a job board and get bombarded with hundreds of resumes. Right now, they don't even want to commit to having a job. The software industry tends to be a young industry. Some of the engineers I've worked with are younger than my own child. I've reported to engineering directors and VPs with children the same age as my grandchildren. These professionals may have their first economic downturn, and are still smarting from the heavy lay-offs of the past couple of years.

They aren't ready to commit to hiring new employees, and their CFOs aren't confident enough about the company financial picture to commit to the expense of a new salary. Also, documentation has traditionally been seen as a burdensome expense, a cost that takes away from profits, much like accounting and human resources.

Our Strategies for Success

To meet these new shifts in perspective, we need to shift our perspectives. Technical writers and communicators need to think more like entrepreneurs, "free agents," and prove to potential employers how investing in us will bring a profitable return on investment for the product. We need to prove this, not just in "soft and fuzzy" terms, but in arguments that business people understand. We're more likely to find freelance, contract, and consulting opportunities than we are to find a regular job.

We know that the users' point of view is important, and that we can affect the quality of the entire product, not just the documentation. But we haven't been very good at proving it in ways that can be quantified for the bean counters.

I can hear the next question in your minds: "Where are these opportun-ities, and how do I tap into them?" Herein lies the conundrum. By nature, perhaps, and by numbers, certainly, technical communicators are introverts. On the Meyers-Briggs scale, the number one profession for INTPs is writer. This doesn't mean that we're shy or retiring, but it does mean that we tend not to like to engage in professional socializing. We shun small talk and would rather communicate by e-mail than by schmoozing with the executive crowd. In other words, we don't like to network. Ah yes, there's that word again, and here's how it plays out in the marketplace today and in the future.

We need to be able to look at our offerings differently, explain what we can contribute, and show how we enhance the product. We need to become comfortable with volunteering the cost-benefit analysis that makes companies want to write us a contract on the spot.

We need to rewrite our resumes as profiles to highlight what we can bring to the table, instead of documenting where we've been. Once we've done that, we need to network with the people who can lead us to the opportunities that exist and the opportunities that are still just a gleam in a software developer's eye.

Networking

I notice that we tend to organize get-togethers with our peers and other communicators and job seekers in technology professions. This is socializing, but it's not networking. These encounters rarely lead to meeting the decision-makers.

We need to work our professional selves into the same rooms where arguments and decisions are made. We need to develop relationships with people who want to know more about what we do, not because they are doing something similar, but because they can assess whether their companies need our services or not.

Statistics published by various governments continue to point to technical communication as a growth profession, and as the market becomes more stabilized there will again be more jobs. But we may never return to the heyday of the 1990s when employers faced such a shortage of professional staff that they wore their desperation on their sleeves. Meanwhile, we are in a perfect position to learn yet another new skill: marketing ourselves like the professionals we are.

Resources

Free agents: www.fastcompany.com (keywords: free agent, entrepreneurship)

Options in technical communication: www.stcsig.org

Networking: www.bailie.com/archives.htm

Showing ROI: www.computerworld.com/managementtopics/roi?from=left

 


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