Is it time for a job change?

Companies have cut salaries and training, held back on bonuses and piled more work on employees in response to the economic downturn. These tactics may well be pushing many IT professionals to go job hunting, according to a recent Computerworld salary survey.

More than one-third (36%) of the 343 respondents to our recent poll said that they’re looking to move to a new employer in the next six months. And 69% reported that they hadn’t received a pay raise in the previous six months. The survey was conducted during the last two weeks in September.

For employers, the warning couldn’t be more clear: As the economy improves, the most able IT workers might leave for something better.

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Further results from the survey explain why employees want to bolt.

For example, only 54% of the respondents said their salary is higher today than it was in 2008, while 26% said there had been no change and one out of five said they were making less money than they were two years ago (see charts at right).

John Moore, a director of enterprise software development at a manufacturing firm, believes that IT budgets will free up early next year if the U.S. economy manages to avoid a double-dip recession, and then companies will begin catching up on neglected projects and hire new workers.

For companies that don’t want to lose their technology staffers, Moore’s advice is to ensure that IT employees are recognized as valued contributors.

“It’s not about money — it’s about employee appreciation,” says Moore. “It’s about open communication, and it’s really about ensuring that your IT staff is invested in what you are doing.”

Still an Employer’s Market

But it won’t be easy for job seekers, even if the economy picks up. The recession has changed how employers hire people. Job ads are much more specific and often include a list of exacting technical requirements, say IT professionals interviewed for this story.

“Employers are much more particular — it’s very much an employer’s market,” says Bob Hibbits, a network engineer at a telecommunications company.

Hibbits says job seekers should expect to have a technical interview over the phone before being invited to a face-to-face meeting. “Employers are only going to look at very well-qualified people,” he notes.

In years past, it might have been good enough to have six to eight of the 10 technical skills an employer might want, but now “there are enough people who don’t have work that they can find someone who has them all,” says Hibbits. He adds that he has also seen more employers initially hiring people on a contract basis before filling jobs permanently.

Steve Watson, a recruiter at executive search firm Stanton Chase International in Dallas, says it’s not surprising that more than one-third of IT workers responding to Computerworld’s salary survey are interested in leaving their current jobs, but he says that sentiment isn’t entirely due to dissatisfaction with pay. “Some of that is lack of career advancement,” he says. In the poll, 46% of the respondents said that they’re less satisfied with their advancement opportunities now than they were six months ago, while only 14% said that they’re more satisfied.

And, of course, the “doing more for less” drumbeat has made IT professionals more open to calls from recruiters, says Watson.

Several people interviewed for this article were reluctant to share their names, but their stories tended to corroborate the larger trends that showed up in the salary poll. One person interviewed offered a twist to the numbers.

An energy industry professional who asked for anonymity says younger people have greater job security because they cost less to employ. Meanwhile, the better-paid baby boomers are in danger of job loss.

“Among those at risk are those who are doing the same jobs that people are doing three to five years out of college,” he says. IT professionals in the best position to survive a cut are those who have business analytical skills and can work with outsourcers, or those who can work on a system that’s key to the company’s mission, he says.

To some employers, the ideal job applicant is someone who is both a “brain surgeon and a Porsche mechanic,” says an unemployed IT professional who didn’t want his name used.

Indeed, employers are looking for a “precision, laser-guided skill set,” says Robert Novak, a system architect.

“My strong advice to anybody in the business is make sure you are getting back to school to keep brushing up on your skills,” says Novak, adding that he makes an effort to do that.

But wherever IT professionals look for new work, the pickings will be slim, at least for now. Only 37% of the respondents to Computerworld’s poll said their companies are currently hiring in their IT departments.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld’s print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on
Education pays off for IT pros

If you can get the right skills training, the salary premium can be impressive.

Consider the master of science in analytics degree program that computer science professor Michael Rappa started at North Carolina State University four years ago. The 10-month course features all-day classes and has a maximum enrollment of 40 students. The curriculum stresses teamwork and combines mathematics, computer science and business, with the goal of training people to help companies turn the vast amounts of data they collect into actionable information.

In the most recent class, 97% of the students had job offers within 90 days of graduation. Those jobs had an average starting salary and bonus of $94,000 — which is more than enough to cover the cost of the program.

The program’s in-state tuition and fees are about $7,000; out-of-state students pay $21,000. About 90% of the people in the program are U.S. citizens or permanent residents because the types of financial assistance that foreign students typically seek aren’t offered. Moreover, the program’s emphasis on teamwork requires students to have strong English skills, says Rappa.

The students range in age from their early 20s to early 50s, he says.

So many companies recruit the program’s students that employer demand exceeds the supply of graduates. “We had a number of employers come in and walk away empty-handed,” says Rappa, who notes that he would like to expand the program.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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