How to reinvent yourself for a better, higher-paying job

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Hot skills that get you ahead of the game in Canada’s IT jobs market

You need the “right skills” to land that IT job

It’s not easy for IT professionals to make a wholesale switch to a different technical discipline to reap the benefits of a hot skills market – say, moving from a job as a systems administrator to a Java developer.

“It’s very difficult, because those two things just don’t go together,” says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology.

But that’s not to say it can’t be done, say Spencer Lee and other IT labour experts. For example, a systems or network administrator could take online or classroom courses to hone his Web development and systems life-cycle management know-how.

“If you can go to a supervisor and say, ‘I’d like to move into a Web development role. I’ve learned some PHP, AJAX and other skills,’ employers are interested in hearing from people who have shown that type of initiative,” says Spencer Lee.

Hot skills

Before spending time, energy and money upgrading your expertise, it’s worthwhile doing some research on the types of skills that are drawing higher-than-average pay increases.

In Canada, for instance, non-technical skills such as business analysis and project management are among the skills in highest demand, according to the  2008 IT Job Market & Salary Survey report published by IT World Canada.

A change in the distribution of IT staff within the industry is driving a need for certain non-technical skills, according to John Pickett, vice-president and community advocate, IT World Canada.

Conducted in January-February this year, the survey polled IT World Canada’s readers across the five core publications as well as its online audience. Of the 3,615 respondents to the salary survey, 3,246 were full-time IT professionals.

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

And as applications become more complex, he 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.

Upgrade your skills

South of the border Web-related skills are among those garnering higher-than-average pay raises according to another salary survey conducted by our sister publication, Computerworld U.S. Other hot skills included security and data management.

Given current cost constraints, most employers have fewer resources available than they once did to retrain IT workers in different technical fields, says David Van De Voort, an IT workforce specialist at Mercer.

Still, there are opportunities for go-getters who are interested in reinventing themselves for potentially higher-paying roles.
For instance, in the U.S., IT staffers who work for the city of Suffolk, Va., can pursue three technical certifications of their choice each year and receive 75 per cent reimbursement “with no questions asked,” says Tisa Knight-Chandler, a network coordinator there.

Knight-Chandler has taken advantage of the program this year by upgrading her Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer 2000 certification to an MCSE 2003. She’s also pursuing a master’s degree in information systems.

Of course, providing IT staffers with training opportunities can be a double-edged sword for employers. On the plus side, a well-rounded technical staff with enhanced knowledge in various disciplines can provide better support. They can also provide IT managers with a deeper bench if an IT specialist goes out sick or has to be temporarily reassigned to another area.

On the other hand, as IT workers become more knowledgeable, they also become more marketable.

Until recently, Tim Watkins was an application support supervisor at Dantom Systems Inc., a Wixom, Mich.-based provider of services to the credit and collection industry. Through the company’s generous training program, Watkins took courses to bolster his supervisory, project management and VMware skills. In addition, Dantom reimbursed him for part of his tuition for an MBA from nearby Walsh College.

But Watkins says he was disappointed when he received a three per cent raise earlier this year, particularly after he felt he’d gone above and beyond his job responsibilities by creating, documenting and testing a disaster recovery plan for the company’s customer data collection system.

“I understand the national averages on IT pay, but that goes to the economics of companies,” says Watkins. “Most companies are downsizing, but [Dantom Systems] is thriving right now. They’re having their best year ever.”

Watkins says he was recently contacted through one of his LinkedIn connections about an opportunity to become a senior systems analyst at a Detroit-area law firm. After interviewing for the position and receiving an offer, he decided to take the job, since it included a 20 per cent salary increase and good benefits, including profit sharing after two years of employment.

Profit from your perks package

Making the most of the benefits your company offers is a great way to earn what some human resources professionals call a “hidden paycheck.”

By taking advantage of benefits such as tuition reimbursement, employee discount programs and flexible spending accounts, you can boost your total compensation package.

In fact, with bonuses and pay raises diminishing, some people are putting more stock in benefits. In a recent survey by Capital One Financial Corp., recent college graduates ranked benefits slightly ahead of pay when it comes to job-hunting priorities. Sixty-six percent said that comprehensive benefits packages are the most important factor in their search for employment, while 60 per cent named salary as the top priority.

According to the survey, valued benefits include health care, retirement plans, child care and domestic partnership benefits.

Some benefits are more valuable than others, says Michael Marcus, an advanced capacity/performance analyst at Atos Origin Inc., an IT consultancy in Arlington, Texas. He recently cashed in on a benefit that enables Atos employees to buy computers and software at a discount, which amounted to about $200 in savings.

There’s real gold in tuition reimbursement benefits, according to Michael Godin, a professional services consultant at Ecora Software Corp. in Portsmouth, N.H. Godin took advantage of a former employer’s tuition reimbursement benefit to get a master’s in computer science.

The employer paid for half the cost of the degree, and with his resulting salary increase, Godin was able to earn back his investment in his education in just one year. “If you can get the employer to pay for your education, that’s a real cost-benefit win,” he says.

In Computerworld‘s 2008 Salary Survey, 18 per cent of respondents said they wish their employers offered tuition reimbursement.

Prime yourself for a promotion

The traditional way of increasing your earning power is to work toward a promotion. In fact, data from Computerworld‘s 2008 Salary Survey supports this idea: Midlevel managers received a median annual base salary of $90,000, compared with $72,450 for rank-and-file and entry-level workers.

Similarly, systems analysts earned $65,432 in total compensation in 2008, while senior systems analysts earned $84,882. And respondents who reported receiving a promotion in the past year saw their total compensation rise 6.7 per cent, compared with the average increase of 3.5 per cent.

But in this economic climate, companies are more prone to adding responsibilities to your current role while maintaining the lower pay grade and job title, says Grant Gordon, managing director of Intronic Solutions Group LLC, a staffing firm in Overland Park, Kan. “There are very few promotions going on,” he says. “Employers are holding on to their pennies versus focusing on growth and development.”

As a result, the best way to jump to that next level might be to recast yourself by redefining the value you add to your company, says Chad Fowler, author of My Job Went to India (And All I Got Was This Lousy Book): 52 Ways to Save Your Job. IT employees should shift their focus to “not staying average,” he says. What you want is to become highly valuable and sought-after by achieving what he calls “remarkable status.”

For instance, you can make yourself stand out by taking on a special project, writing articles, speaking at conferences, becoming a recognized expert in something the company does – either technologically or industry-wise – and otherwise raising your profile.

You can start on a small scale by forming a local technology user group, for instance, Fowler says.

“You can incrementally improve your salary by making incremental improvements, but these things allow you to jump outside your current level of performance,” Fowler says. “And almost nobody is doing this, which almost makes it easy to be recognized for doing it.”
Another way to stand out from most IT people, he says, is to become fluent in a market your company focuses on. “That would mean clients outside of IT would find you remarkable because you understand the terminology they use and you have your own ideas for improving the business,” Fowler says.

Your focus shouldn’t be on your salary, he notes. “Ultimately, if all you want is a higher salary, you won’t get it. If you focus too much on money, you’re not likely to have the passion and energy required to really differentiate yourself.”

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