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If you want to know just how grim the scene is for the unemployed information technology worker, attend a tech job fair in the Silicon Valley.

More about the job crunch
SANTA CLARA, Calif.--They came in suits and polished pumps, or khakis and tennies. They clutched résumés, hoping the summaries of their life's work would warrant at least a few minutes of a recruiter's time. And they stood in line after line after line.

The thousands of job seekers who flocked to the BrassRing tech employment conference here last week queued up like cattle to register, and then again to enter the conference hall. After that, many waited for nearly an hour in another line, just to get their faces in front of a real person at a company that might be hiring.

"It's pretty discouraging. You give them your résumé, and they put it in a stack with hundreds of others," said Shane Avery, 24, who in his short career has already been laid off from two computing jobs, one at Intel and the other at a smaller company.

If you want to know how grim the scene is for the unemployed information technology worker, attend a tech job fair in the Silicon Valley. The U.S. tech industry has lost more than half a million jobs in two years, giving back most of the gains made during the dot-com mania, and turning events like the BrassRing affair into long shots for even the most optimistic and skilled of job hunters.

Gone are the days when booths full of hiring managers overflowed into the hallways, like so many campsites outside a Grateful Dead concert. The hall at last week's conference was just a quarter filled, and the number of companies offering services for the unemployed equaled the number of companies offering actual jobs. For every Sun Microsystems or Motorola looking for an engineer, there was a company hawking health insurance, 401(k) rollover assistance or "free résumé critiquing."

"This is the worst I've seen," said David Levy, 51, an out-of-work systems integration analyst, who has been involved in the tech industry since 1974. "I'm running into people who have been out of work a year or a year and a half. It's definitely an employer's market out there."

During the boom years, many attendees of such conferences were already employed. They'd sneak out of their offices at lunch to drop by the conference, looking to boost their salary or stock options package by trading up to another dot-com. Meanwhile, eager recruiters stood at booths with signs listing dozens of unfilled positions, beckoning potential job candidates like carnival barkers, tempting them with overflowing bowls of candy.

U.S. high-tech jobs: Into the ether

The high-tech industry has lost more than a half-million jobs since January 2001.

Industry Jobs lost between Jan. 2001 and Dec. 2002
Electronics manufacturing 415,300
Change: -20%
Communications services 135,300
Change: -9%

Software and computer-related services 9,300
Change: -0.4%
Total high-tech employment 559,900
Change: -10%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and AeA (American Electronics Association)

Nowadays, the candy quotient is null, and some attendees even bring their children because they can't afford babysitters.

"Before, people walked with a little lift in their heels. Now it's like they're waiting in line to view a body at a wake," said Kaili Nawahine, 37, who used to attend job fairs during the heyday just to see if anything better was out there. Now he's an unemployed project manager looking for work.

At the BrassRing conference, just 30 companies bought exhibition space, compared with more than 500 three years ago.

Although a sprinkling of tech firms attended the job fair, including Sun, Motorola and Applied Materials, defense companies offered the most jobs. Long lines snaked around the booths of companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

"The defense contractors and government contractors are doing a lot of hiring," Brass Ring spokesman Mike Jurs said. "In the past, they had a hard time getting candidates to pay attention because there were sexier jobs out there." In the wake of the dot-com bust, Jurs said, the defense industry seems to represent stability.

Matt Blunt, a recruiter at defense industry consulting company SM&A, said he's surprised at the caliber of people who can't find jobs. Engineers with doctorates from MIT and Stanford University have dropped by his booth, desperate for employment. "There are a lot of gifted people out of work," he said. "It's really quite sad."

Despite the long lines and daunting ratio of jobs to job seekers, conferences and other face-to-face opportunities are important pieces of the employment puzzle. In this day and age of Internet job boards and e-mailed résumés, many people make the mistake of thinking they can point and click their way to employment.

Not so, according to experts, especially when companies receive thousands of e-mailed résumés for each opening. Candidates need to work hard to stand out, and one of the best ways to do that is networking. A study by human resources consulting firm DBM found that 59 percent of people who were re-employed in the high-tech field got their new jobs because they networked. The study said networking was far and away the No. 1 source of new jobs, followed by using a search firm, scouring newspaper advertisements, and finally, surfing the Net.

Internet job-hunting tips

It's a jungle out there, but here are few strategies for standing out among thousands of applicants, from Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor.

1. Research the company.
Although the Web makes it easy to find information companies, Taylor said most people spend more time researching car purchases than learning about a company where they have an interview.

2. Make the job search a full-time job.
If you were willing to work 50 hours a week for somebody else, you should be willing to put in that much time for yourself, Taylor said.

3. Send your résumé as early as possible after seeing a new job posting.
In an era where companies are bombarded with 30 to 40 résumés an hour for a single job, even a day can mean the difference between landing an interview or not. Monster.com hired as its chief technology officer the first person to send his résumé to the company.

4. Polish and repolish that résumé.
Don't just knock it out in an hour, the night before you plan to send it off. You're competing against people who've spent a week tinkering with theirs, sometimes with the advice of career consultants. Your résumé won't stand out if it contains the same jargon as all the others.

Source: Monster.com

Attendees at the BrassRing conference said that at the very least, such events get them out of the house and give them the chance to commiserate with others while they pass the time in line.

Jurs, the BrassRing spokesman, said job candidates should combine networking and Net surfing for the most effective job search. "We recommend, especially in the current market, that people adopt a multifaceted approach," he said. BrassRing offers a job search site in addition to its job fairs.

And it's unlikely that companies will abandon their online recruiting efforts, despite the deluge of resumes, partly because the method is so cheap. According to Thomas Weisel Partners, companies spend an average of just $152 per person when hiring through online recruiting, compared with $1,383 for using a temporary agency.

Applicants are going to have to work harder than ever, no matter what their approach. Jeff Taylor, founder and chairman of Monster.com, said his clients get an average of 30 to 40 resumes an hour for each job posting, and the online job hunting site receives between 25,000 and 30,000 new resumes per day. That adds up to stiff competition, he said.

What's more, tech workers who had multiple offers just a few years ago are dealing with the shock of having none. "Many of these high-tech workers are used to getting a job in two weeks," he said. Now the average time to find a job is six months.

He said people can find work if they make the job search a full-time project, polish their résumés and send them in as soon as possible after seeing a posting.

Meanwhile, some are resorting to more creative approaches after testing the usual job search methods.

Avery, the 24-year-old job seeker, said he's had better luck at job fairs than through his Web efforts. "I've never gotten any hint of a job offer or feedback from anything I've done over the Internet," he said.

One of Avery's favorite job-hunting tricks these days involves sneaking into student job fairs at Stanford and at Santa Clara University. Avery didn't go to either school, but he said they never check. "It's a more even playing field," he said of the school fairs, which pit him against people with similar experience.

"I don't think I'll ever do well here," he said, waving a hand around the room of primarily male, mostly middle-aged fellow job seekers at the BrassRing event. "These people have 15 years of experience, at least."