How to keep your tech career vibrant in today’s tough economy

The economy is in trouble…everywhere. Even outsourced providers are nervous. Already under stress, IT staffers see their jobs getting more and more difficult as they must do more with less, all while wondering if they’ll keep their jobs at all.

That’s why you need a plan for your tech career. The worst thing you can do is give up or panic. Although tech jobs are under increasing pressure, the reality is that the technology jobs market overall is still doing better than the market for other types of jobs.

That doesn’t mean you’re immune from layoffs, stagnant salaries, or increasing workloads, but it does mean you have more options than many other workers – if you’re willing to be flexible.

First, the bad news on tech jobs.

There’s plenty of data to support fears that many tech workers have about their job security and ability to make ends meet. For example, more than 50,000 tech workers lost their jobs before the financial meltdown hit, and more jobs are in danger.

That trend translates to income pain for even the survivors.

In Canada, the situation appears to be marginally better than south of the border.

For instance, according to IT World Canada’s 2008 IT Job Market and Salary Survey, compensation in the IT sector increased by 3.6 per cent across the industry – a relatively modest increase in light of the continuing competition for skills – but still well ahead of the cost of living index, which hovers around 2 per cent.

In the U.S., a similar 2008 salary survey conducted by our sister publication Computerworld, indicated salaries rose 3 to 4 per cent, failing to keep up with inflation rates that are rising above 5 per cent.

In addition, bonuses for IT workers rose only 0.2 per cent from 2007 levels – making tough times even more challenging for IT professionals.

And stress levels are up. The same Computerworld survey shows only 14 per cent of respondents did not feel more stressed than a year earlier.

Shrinking budgets are one reason.

“Companies are in the mind-set of not spending in the next three months and increasing only 1 or 2 per cent in the next 12 months. That’s quite a change from last year when it was between 7 and 8 per cent,” notes Steve Minton, vice-president of worldwide IT markets at IDC.

The U.S. and Europe appear to be especially hard hit, though the downturn is being felt worldwide.

Some observers say tech workers in the U.S. might consider moving to Canada, or other stronger markets where the demand for IT skills — and the opportunities to develop new ones — remains good.

In Canada, new entrants into the profession fall far below levels needed to fulfill the forecast in hiring demands, the IT World Survey indicates.

Here the skills shortage reported in previous years continues, and is more acute for specific skill sets, particularly applications development technical skills, which is the largest IT job category and the one presenting the greatest challenge for hiring managers.

To remain competitive, IT workers need a combination of 30 essential basic skills – including, according to one survey, strong ethics and morals– and abilities in emerging recession-proof areas where demand remains high, such as security, VoIP, and wireless.

And don’t forget about not-so-hot areas that are critical to companies’ abilities to keep running: Cobol skills can be great job insurance, for example.

Also, look to certain skills that have been hot for a while and, thus, tend to be neglected, such as open source, .Net, and Java.Certifications also can help, especially management ones. But beware: Certifications are not equally valuable.

Some are simply expected — and may be necessary to even be considered for a job — while others are superfluous. That’s especially true for technical certifications; outside of security and networking, they’re not proving that valuable.

Those that tend to give you an edge involve management and business-specific training — skills that business managers more easily understand than technical ones.

In demand skills

In Canada, the distribution of IT staff within the industry is driving a need for certain non-technical skills, notes John Pickett, vice-president and community advocate, IT World Canada

Many Canadian companies, he said, are moving the hard core development work out of house, while retaining functions such as business analysis in house.

Little wonder then that “business analysis and project management are among the skills in highest demand.”

And as applications become more complex, Pickett said, another job function that’s witnessed the fastest growth over the past few years is the Help Desk.

Among the core IT functions, application and database development (MCSD, SQL, Java, ASP, .net, Oracle) head the list. Pickett suggested that the Canadian computer industry – as a whole – was hiring more aggressively in these areas.

Networking (Cisco, VoIP, wireless, net management) is an “in demand” skill for 38 per cent of the hiring managers, while 15 per cent had plans to hire new networking staff.

Other sought after areas of expertise include: Windows administration, security, Web services and server virtualization.

For a very small group of companies, skills such as RAD/extreme programming are a high priority. But it doesn’t emerge as a highly needed skill across the entire sample.

Highly sought after are technical qualifications in areas such as Active Server Pages, Linux, Systems Security, and Microsoft Solutions Development.

One interesting phenomenon – highlighted by Pickett – is the rise of new roles, in response to changing work distribution within the industry.

One of these, he said, is the role of Relationship Manager – of which there are quite a few flavours.

“The most prominent are vendor relationship managers, and [those] responsible for managing the relationship between dispersed project teams, whether they are part of their own company or of a vendor supported outsourcing arrangement.”

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