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Economist: Tougher times for techies

An economist finds real wages for professional and technical workers have fallen, and unemployment for mathematicians and computer scientists has risen to a historic high.

An economist has found that techies and other highly skilled workers have been taking an economic beating of late.

Jared Bernstein, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, concludes that inflation-adjusted wages for professional and technical workers have fallen and that unemployment for mathematicians and computer scientists has risen to its highest level since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started collecting that data in 1982.

"Pervasive weakness in the labor market has led to falling real wages, even for some of the most highly educated workers," Bernstein said in a report last month.

Bernstein's conclusions are not surprising, given the tech slump of the past few years, the broader economic recession, and the way information technology work is being shipped to low-cost locales overseas. Tech worker advocates also say the H-1B visa guest worker program has hurt domestic techies.

On the other hand, a recent survey by consulting firm Meta Group of North American information technology managers found that IT base salaries continued to rise 5 percent on average--the same as last year--and that workers with certain "hot" skills, such as computer system architects and senior network designers, can snag pay increases of 8 percent to 10 percent.

Using Labor Department data, Bernstein looked at wages of professional and technical workers, which he termed a white-collar category that includes some of the most highly skilled workers in the economy, including those in high-tech industries. He found that between the fourth quarter of 2001 and the fourth quarter of 2002, non-inflation-adjusted wages grew 1.7 percent. The inflation rate during that period was 2.2 percent.

In a study published in January, Bernstein found that the unemployment rate for mathematicians and computer scientists climbed from around 1 percent in the latter 1990s to around 5 percent at the end of 2002. Bernstein noted that this level was below the country's overall unemployment rate of 6 percent. But he said the four-point increase in unemployment among these skilled workers is twice that of the increase during the same time in the overall rate.

"Despite the fact that the economy was widely thought to be in recovery throughout 2002, job prospects clearly worsened for even highly skilled workers," Bernstein wrote.