Mismatched job titles

What’s in a title? When you work in IT, apparently, not much. From network administrator to network engineer, there is little agreement about what tasks that job actually entails and what skills the job holder must possess.

One position might require extensive security experience, as well as network-skills certification, while another job with the same title might be a glorified help-desk post. So, does it make sense that the pay ranges would be roughly the same for both?

This is a longstanding problem, according to David Foote of Foote Partners. “IT jobs do not get a lot of respect. These jobs include lots of duties and skills for which companies do not compensate,” says Foote, president, co-founder and chief recruitment officer of the IT compensation and workforce management firm.

Given the shortage in skilled IT professionals in many geographic regions and for many network-oriented jobs, retaining the best employees is critically important. And until your company pays its IT staff for the jobs they actually do, as opposed to what the titles might suggest, you’ll be vulnerable to someone else poaching your best people.

“Even if a company is paying 100 per cent of the going market value for that position, they’re vulnerable to a competitor coming in and offering skill-based pay rates,” Foote says. “Companies can no longer pay for titles. They have to pay for skills.”

If you’re going to keep up, you’re going to have to pay based on an individual’s skills and certifications — and how he or she applies them on the job. According to a Foote Partners survey in July, employers now incorporate skills pay into the compensation of more than half the IT workers in the United States and Canada. This represents a major departure, according to Foote.

Five years ago, bonuses were the most common way for an employer to redress a gap between someone’s job and their paycheck. Bonuses largely disappeared during the recession.


Now that the economy has picked back up again — and along with it, demand for hot IT skills — employers must start to revamp stale job descriptions, add in skills pay to overall compensation and use bonuses in cases where the proper job description is a moving target. Companies (especially those in highly competitive geographic areas, such as urban centres) are paying base salary plus a bonus for certifications and a 10 per cent or 15 per cent premium for certain hot skills, such as network security.

“Technology changes so fast, and the job requirements are different from day to day,” says Brian Gabrielson, national practice director for Robert Half Technology, a unit of Robert Half International, in Menlo Park, Calif. Companies cannot hope to revisit the titles often enough to keep each one perfectly in tune.

And sorting through IT titles and reclassifying people is difficult, time-consuming and often unpopular among the very people who should be helped by the effort. Workers often feel destabilized when their titles and compensation come under review, even if the point of the exercise is to increase their pay to align with market conditions, Foote says.

So, rather than going through the reclassifying of all IT titles, a project that could stretch to a year or more, the best course is to reclassify only the positions that are somewhat static: For example, mainframe maintenance or help desk support.

“For job titles that won’t change much, tighten up those job descriptions based on what people really do,” Foote says. He notes that positions like network engineers, network administrators, network architects and network technicians are pretty steady and well-defined compared with other parts of IT.

“For jobs that change more frequently, use broad titles but fine-tune the compensation person-by-person based on their skills. Adjust their base pay or use bonuses.” As an example, Foote notes the distinction between storage administrators and storage/SAN administrators, with the latter in higher demand.

Gabrielson agrees that skills-based pay is critical to combat the burgeoning retention problem. He sees employers beginning to add incentive-based pay where applicable. For example, tier-one help desk personnel could be compensated based on first-call resolution.


However, many IT professionals are suspicious of incentive-based pay, Gabrielson adds. So the best way to introduce that to the organization is to hold base pay steady and pay over and above if the worker meets certain goals.

Partners Healthcare CIO John Glaser heads an IT staff of 1,200 at the Boston company. Glaser says he “wouldn’t be surprised” if some of his staffers’ job descriptions did not match exactly with what they do every day. If the manager is doing a good job, he says, the “A” players will be rewarded over and above the “C” players, based on their performance, certifications and possession of hot skills.

“As long as you’re getting rewarded and are on a promotion track that is pleasing,” it won’t matter as much if the title falls a bit short, Glaser says.

“You have to recognize superstars, within certain bounds. You have to have a good working relationship with the HR folks, and there has to be flexibility and understanding on both sides,” he says.

That surely doesn’t exist everywhere. In some companies management is reluctant to grant skills-based pay, given that the approach will probably increase the overall payout.

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