Ticket to ride

Layoffs, sell-offs and shutdowns. Lately, the business and trade media have been full of bad news about networking and telecommunications giants laying off staff, selling off manufacturing businesses and shutting down production lines.

It’s a scary time to be a networking professional. But according to tech recruitment specialists, the time has never been better for network engineers and administrators – with the proper skills – to advance in their careers.

“There is still a massive shortage of qualified IT people,” says Jason Mann, co-founder and executive vice-president of Brainhunter.com, a recruitment firm based in Toronto. “We’ve got hundreds of unfilled jobs. Despite the economic slowdown and all the layoffs, there’s still an extremely low unemployment rate across everything in Canada. Certainly in IT, there’s probably still a negative employment rate, meaning there are more jobs than there are people.”

Sandra Lavoy, area manager, consulting services for RHI Consulting in Ottawa, agrees. RHI Consulting has currently in excess of 50 openings for networking professionals in the Ottawa region, Lavoy says. If there is a slowdown happening, she has yet to see it affect the job market in the nation’s capital, she adds.

On the surface, this would seem to contradict the numerous reports of layoffs in the Ottawa region at prominent network hardware vendors, such as Nortel Networks Ltd., Cisco Systems Inc. and JDS Uniphase Corp. As sales of telecom and network equipment have begun to tank, so too have the fortunes of these industry players. Faced with decreasing revenues, vendors are making deep staff cuts as a way to reduce costs.

However, as both Lavoy and Mann point out, the layoffs at these companies have mostly affected administrative, manufacturing, and sales and marketing positions. The market meltdown does not appear to be impacting hardware development projects, which are continuing in anticipation of the market’s recovery, they say. If anything, the layoffs are a result of older production lines being shut down, as vendors refocus on new emerging technologies such as optical networking, wireless and broadband, Mann explains.

Lavoy adds: “JDS laid off all these people, but they were low-end manufacturing jobs. Sometimes companies lay off to get rid of old skills, deadwood. There are some good people who were laid off, of course, but I don’t think it’s as bad yet in Canada as everybody thinks it is.”

what’s hot

As the networking industry readjusts its focus on emerging technologies, network and telecom professionals will need to keep up with the resultant skill requirements. “If you have old skills, you could be sitting on the (job) market for a long time,” Lavoy warns.

Unsurprisingly, Internet-related skills are hot right now, according to Mann. While LAN and intranet management has decreased in significance, the important skills today relate to routers, optical networking or any of the new Internet technologies that increase bandwidth, Mann says.

“The real traction is with the optical engineers,” he says. “Any engineers doing routers or Internet backbone-type work, they’re the ones in the highest demand.

“There seems to be a lot of work in the field for people who have cable experience, ISDN experience, DSL, all of that area,” Mann adds, saying network security and wireless technologies are other high-demand areas.

The telecom-rich Ottawa region is currently a hotbed of activity for optical networking and application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) design, according to Randy Bentham, branch manager, business development at Brainhunter.com’s Ottawa office. He says there are a number of large Ottawa companies and start-ups in the optical component market who are actively hiring.

The labour market in Canada for qualified ASIC designers is currently so tight that organizations are having to go overseas to find people, Bentham adds.

“I was at a place this week where they had just brought over 12 people from Korea,” he says. “(The employer) is basically bearing the cost of training, and setting up ‘English as a Second Language’ skills for these people and their families. It’s a hugely expensive proposition.”

The skills shortage phenomenon in Canada is “getting silly”, Bentham adds. He says he knows of one client who flew a job candidate in from the United States for an interview. “This person had set up a number of different interviews in town, and basically had an offer waiting on the table at every company he went to. He was able to dictate terms and get these companies bidding against each other,” he says.

According to Bentham, the salary for an intermediate ASIC designer is typically in the range of $120,000. “They’re basically able to write their ticket,” he says.

“We’ve been hearing situations where the $110,000 to $120,000 offers are being rejected,” he adds. “We have a situation where the company is paying ASIC designers the same as what they’re willing to pay a CFO.”

and what’s not

While network component engineers and designers are sitting pretty these days, the same can not necessarily be said for individuals with basic LAN and WAN administration skills. According to Andrea Guinn, vice-president of staffing services at the Calgary office of recruiting firm Computer Horizons ISG, there is good news and bad news for network managers.

The good news is the networking market has reached an age of maturity in the last year, to the point that every organization in every industry – from services to oil and gas to dot-com – has or needs a network. “It’s inescapable,” she says.

The bad news is the network industry evolution has attracted so many networking professionals that the job market is now oversaturated with skilled LAN and WAN administrators.

“We have really noticed a change in the past 18 months,” Guinn says. “There’s not much demand (for network administrators), and when there is demand, there is tons of competition. We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even advertise those jobs any more because we’re inundated with applications.”

Instead, Computer Horizons has built relationships in Calgary with about three dozen candidates with strong networking skills. “We tend to recycle (job applicants) or go to them with referrals, so it becomes who you know and the type of work experience you’ve had in the past” that enables applicants to land jobs, Guinn explains.

Brainhunter.com’s Mann says he has observed a similar problem in the network job market in Toronto, a city which is home to many corporate headquarters. “In Toronto, there are certainly a lot of LAN administrators, such as MCSEs (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers),” Mann says. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of MCSEs out there, and the demand is not as strong as the supply.”

He speculates one reason for the glut of MCSEs may be because technical schools have been aggressively marketing certification courses in the last few years.

“[MCSE] just seems to be the default career to go into for a lot of people who are looking to get into the IT field,” Mann adds.

Guinn’s advice to LAN administrators is to retool or augment their skill sets with new technical knowledge. For example, she has noticed a certain amount of overlap between network and system administration job functions, and recommends network professionals learn programming or scripting languages such as CGI, Perl or Visual Basic.

the bottom line

On average, an intermediate Novell NetWare administrator in Calgary would be paid about $45,000 a year, according to Guinn. “It’s supply and demand,” she explains. “NetWare is a fairly affordable product, so as time marches forward, more and more skilled labourers are coming forward with that skill.”

In comparison, someone who administers a heterogeneous environment with Unix, Windows NT, NetWare and an enterprise database, such as Oracle, Sybase or SQL Server, could hope to make $50,000 to $65,000 in Calgary, Guinn says.

RHI Consulting’s Lavoy has a different perspective on the LAN administration job market. She says Ottawa has not seen the same level of saturation in the market for network and system administrators as other regions in Canada have. In particular, Unix is currently a high-demand skill in the Ottawa telecom market.

“Sun Solaris is the hottest skill needed,” Lavoy says. “We don’t see HP-UX very much. Solaris is the hottest one without a doubt.

“We have people making almost $100,000 a year as a Unix administrator,” she adds. “That’s a lot of money.”

She cites a recent example of a job candidate with two years of Unix experience who was considering employment offers from two separate companies. “The candidate at the present time was making $52,000 and wanted $60,000 a year. To make sure that they got him, Company A offered him $75,000,” Lavoy says, adding the candidate accepted the offer. “We’re talking a $23,000 increase. I couldn’t believe it. I thought the client had lost his mind.”

RHI Consulting’s recent 2001 Salary Guide shows a more rational compensation picture for networking and telecom professionals ( please see chart). Although starting salaries for network administrators, engineers and architects have decreased slightly, overall salary ranges for these positions have grown by upwards of two per cent, the RHI survey shows. In fact, network administrator salaries have increased by 9.1 per cent, while network architects have seen their compensation grow by 10.1 per cent. Network managers are making 7.6 per cent more than they were last year, according to RHI. Salary ranges for telecom managers and specialists have increased by 7.1 per cent and eight per cent, respectively.

retrain and retool

Although the job market seems healthy in some regions for networking professionals with certain skills, network administrators need to stay on top of changes in the marketplace.

“Networking is a little fickle because technologies come and go,” Brainhunter.com’s Mann says. “So you have to make sure you’re on top of what’s hot and retrain when you need to.”

Progressive organizations are increasingly offering retraining and continuing education courses through the workplace, as part of ongoing employee recruitment and retention efforts, according to RHI Consulting’s Lavoy. Networking professionals need to capitalize on these education opportunities.

However, Guinn at Computer Horizons says determining the right skills to develop in order to be marketable as a networking professional in the future can be a crap shoot. “Part of it is just luck,” she says. “Three years ago to a year ago, if you had strong experience with Cisco routers, hubs and switches, it was much easier to find employment opportunities.

“How do you guarantee that you’re going to land in a company that’s using the expensive product that’s the flavour of the week? It’s just luck of the draw.”

Linda Stuart is a Toronto-based freelance writer who specializes in networking, telecommunications and e-business issues. She can be reached via e-mail at linda@lindastuart.com.