Hot skills for a cold market

About a year ago, Fred Meyer Jewelers began a migration away from the mainframes at its parent company, Fred Meyer Inc., a US$5.5 billion retailer based in Portland Ore. That’s when Karen Fung began to see the writing on the wall. A 14-year Cobol veteran, Fung quickly taught herself C and Visual Basic. Then she signed on to a project to develop a point-of-sale system to run on new Windows NT machines. She’s now senior programmer in charge of five intranet and Web development projects.

Fung didn’t have any Java experience. And she was just learning HTML and Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Information Server at the time she landed the senior programmer’s job. It was her soft skills, particularly her ability to pick up new languages and concepts, that got her the job, according to her boss, Mark Funasaki, information systems manager.

“She’s since passed up our Web development team and is leading the charge,” Funasaki says.

Pickings are slimmer than they have been in recent years, but jobs are out there for IT workers who can add value to a company’s bottom line, says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of the consulting division at Robert Half International Inc., a job placement firm based in Menlo Park, Calif.

For example, corporate intranets are going forward because they reduce paper and training costs. That’s creating a need for people with Web development, XML and media-streaming skills, Lee says.

At some companies, the strategic value of data is driving demand for database and data efficiency managers. And other value-add projects call for skills in networking, security, disaster recovery and wireless LANs, according to hiring managers and job placement experts.

Risky Business

Until recently, network security has been a difficult sell. But the rise in worms and other malicious code attacks and concerns about liability and terrorism changed all that. Security architects and people with risk-assessment, public-key infrastructure (PKI) and business continuity skills are in demand, according to Tracy Lenzner, president of Lenzner Group, an IT security placement firm in Las Vegas.

Paul Raines has firsthand knowledge of the strong demand for security professionals; he entertained three offers for executive-level security jobs in January. The head of information risk management at London-based Barclay’s Capital, Raines has a r