Networking skills still in demand

With layoffs galore and many companies having to shut down operations altogether, the Canadian IT job scene has been less than savoury and has in fact left a bitter taste in a lot of mouths over the last year. The good news? Things are looking up, especially for those in the networking field.

According to the 2002 Salary Guide from Robert Half International Inc. (RHI), a specialized staffing firm with offices around the world, networking is one of seven specialty areas in IT that will see the strongest growth in both Canadian and U.S. IT departments. RHI’s bi-annual Hot Jobs Report – compiled by interviewing more than 1,650 CIOs – found that networking will grow by 24 per cent in the U.S. and by 13 per cent in Canada. That means that network professionals are a hot ticket item – but working in the field definitely comes with a price. Rapidly changing technologies, tighter competition in the market and increased expectations on the part of companies that are hiring are making the hunt for a job more difficult than it once was.

Job security

“My guess would be that there is a shortage of particular types of skill sets, and that there are a lot more IT professionals out there right now,” observes Julie Kaufman, research manager of skills at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. “There isn’t the same hiring going on in this space as what we saw two years ago. But there are certainly going to be certain types of skill sets that are needed out there right now for companies to continue to move forward with their technology strategies that are going to be in a little bit of short supply.”

While companies are hiring, they are also becoming more selective. With that in mind, there are important things for networking professionals to consider, according to those who watch the job scene closely. Skills are now under severe scrutiny, they say, because the paths that companies are choosing when it comes to their networks require specific proficiencies.

So what is the skill du jour?

“Integration – voice, video and data – is a pretty big deal right now, and another thing is security,” notes Stephen Mill, the Toronto-based regional manager, consulting services for RHI. “You want to talk about an area that has seen growth? Where over-compensation has been on the rise for the last, say, two or three quarters? [Security] is it. I mean, a network security specialist…these people can really garner big money in the market today.”

Specifically, companies are looking for people with experience in security hardware and software, intrusion detection and firewall management and implementation.

Global Knowledge Canada, an IT education and training solutions provider, has seen at least a 40 per cent growth in response to the network security courses it offers, according to Diane Teare, the firm’s Toronto-based director of e-learning.

“I think just in general people are more security-aware since [Sept. 11],” she says. “Our network courses have definitely seen an increase in growth in the last year, and even more so specifically since last September…I think people are just more security-aware and therefore are extending that to the network world as well.”

Scott Williams says that he also sees a lot of interest brewing in the area of security when it comes to IT education. Williams, the vice-president of marketing for CDI Education Corp.’s corporate education services in Toronto, says that companies are pushing for their employees to have skills in security. “We have actually done some custom course development in the security area,” he explains. “For instance, we have a course called ‘Securing your network against hacker attacks.’ And that has become very successful for us because there is a demand for that.”

Security skills are not the only hot commodity in the area of networking.

“Really, I think the biggest thing is Windows 2000 right now,” says Kara Levitt, employment specialist with the Institute of Computer Studies, also at CDI, “just because before, you saw a lot more NT, and now everyone seems to want to upgrade their systems. So Windows 2000 is probably the most (in-demand skill) I am seeing right now.”

Getting personal

But technological skills are not the only things employers are looking for. For Karly Rodriguez, a recent CDI graduate who has been working as a network administrator for about a month in Toronto, the experience of looking for a job in the field of networking held a few surprises.

“I don’t think employers are looking for somebody that specializes in just one area,” she offers. “What I found while going on interviews was that they want somebody that would have the technical knowledge, but also they are looking for people with communication skills and customer service experience.”

Rodriguez, who completed a six-month diploma program in networking in February, had worked as tech support prior to going back to school. Before that, she had been working in the travel industry. She says it was that experience, combined with her technical knowledge, that landed her three job offers.

In most cases, employers don’t necessarily hire someone based solely on their technical skills, agrees CDI’s Levitt. “The soft skills and the business experience in any industry is also worth quite a bit. The number one skill that employers want is communication. If you can work effectively in a team environment and you speak well, that’s going to weigh a lot.”

Also, most companies are trying to find people able to address their networks’ needs right now, who are also willing and able to learn about the technologies they might bring in down the road.

Certifications usually offer the employee or candidate an advantage. During her job search, Rodriguez says certification was one of the requirements companies were asking for. While she has no certifications yet, Rodriguez says it is something she has been thinking about. “I didn’t want to concentrate on certifications until I actually started working,” she explains, adding that she figured once she found a job, the path to which certification she should strive for would become clearer.

Gord Stencell, client relations manager at staffing firm Bankside Chase Corp. in Toronto, agreed that companies are definitely voicing a desire for employees with certifications and designations. “Companies with a short amount of time want the most certified person,” he says. “So now that the CCIE [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert designation] is available, that’s cropping up more in our discussions with companies. That would actually be the hottest ticket now in networking that we have seen, and can make a difference of [$20,000 per year] in salary, potentially, at the very, very senior level.”

Preparing to face off with competition means that investing in certifications may not be a bad idea. In many cases, companies confident in the employees they already have will take a vested interested in improving those workers’ skills and will pay for classes and testing. Companies which invest money in new technologies need to ensure that they also invest in the employees that are responsible for it, notes Richard Gordon, Ottawa-based vice-president and managing director of Global Knowledge Canada.

“Companies are introducing technologies fairly quickly and it is in the employee’s best interest to be able to adapt and change and be proficient in the new technologies,” he says. “So it puts, I think, an importance and in fact a pressure on people to stay ahead of what the latest technology is.”

Money makes the world go ’round

Despite the demand for more skills, most salaries in the IT space will actually go down this year, according to RHI’s 2002 Salary Guide. The drop in dollars will be minimal, however.

“We have seen a continual but minimal downward trend on what most positions pay in the market,” RHI’s Mill says. “It is strictly due to the fact that – and I hate to sound simple, but – it is just supply and demand. There’s just not as many jobs and there are more candidates available.”

Canadian network architects can expect to see a 0.6 per cent drop in salary to a range of $62,500 to $96,250, as can telecommunications managers, whose range will go down to $72,000 to $85,750. Network managers, at $65,000 to $88,750, can expect to see a 1.3 per cent drop in salary, while telecommunications specialists will see the greatest drop at 2.0 per cent, bringing their range to $57,000 to $78,250. LAN/WAN Administrators will see 0.4 per cent less at $42,000 to $74,750.

How much does specific knowledge or training play into salaries? The 2002 Salary Guide notes that networkers can add five to 10 per cent more for ColdFusion, XML, Active Server Page and Linux. It advises to add five to 15 per cent for Java development skills, Windows 2000 and for the CCIE designation, while Unix administration skills add another 10 to 15 per cent to salaries.

Rodriguez says she saw firsthand how salaries have changed.

“Companies are paying less than they used to…so salary negotiation is very important,” she says. “But people need to be aware of that downturn. Even though the economy is picking up, people are hesitant to be paying too much money.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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