By almost any measure, the economy is in a bad shape.
Consumer spending is down, credit markets remain weak, and millions of North Americans are out of work.
Yet despite the grim financial picture, demand for certain types of IT skills, such as SAP, .Net and help desk/support, remains strong.
And while some employers will continue to look outside their companies to find workers with expertise in these and other disciplines, some CIOs are building some of this know-how internally as hiring freezes become more common.
Here’s a look at the hottest skills, as cited by respondents to Computerworld‘s annual Forecast survey.
1. Programming/application development
Ask any recruiter what the single most sought-after IT skill is at the moment, and the universal response is a three-letter word: SAP.
“The little joke in our industry right now is that if you have ‘SAP’ on your résumé right now, you have zero unemployment,” says Bruce Culbert, CEO of iSymmetry Inc., an IT consulting and recruitment firm with offices in Washington and Alpharetta, Ga.
SAP experts, particularly those who are experienced with a specific module in a certain industry, are commanding $35 to $40 per hour more on average than other types of senior technicians, says Culbert.
Demand for SAP skills has remained red hot because a growing number of companies are working toward establishing global instances of the ERP system, says Jill Herrin, president of IT recruiter JDResources Inc.
But not far behind is demand for IT professionals with .Net experience, say Herrin and other observers.
Some companies that relied on offshore labor to deliver .Net and C# capabilities just a few years ago found that route to be “nonproductive,” says Herrin. Now they’re looking to fill those jobs in-house, she says.
Rich Schappert, senior director of IT at Casey’s General Stores Inc. in Ankeny, Iowa, says he has been filling the retailer’s demand for .Net and SQL Server programmers for the past five years by recruiting and training local college students.
The company, which operates 1,500-plus stores across the Midwest, has been moving its Cobol-based financial applications into the .Net environment to reduce its mainframe costs. “[It’s also] getting tougher to find people who know Cobol,” notes Schappert.
2. Help desk/technical support
Help desk and technical support skills remain in strong demand, particularly for people who offer a blend of deep technical expertise and solid customer-service abilities, says Herrin.
“I have lots of customers who tell me their customer service function is broken and they need people with better communication skills,” she says.
“One of the things we’re seeing a demand for in this space is what we call a JOAT — a jack-of-all-trades — somebody who can do break/fix work and a bit of desktop support,” says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology.
Demand for well-rounded technicians tends to become more acute when companies are looking to get more work done with fewer people, she says.
3. Project management
Even though many companies are cutting back on IT projects, there’s still robust demand for project managers with solid track records, says Spencer Lee.
“A differentiator is whether the person can articulate that they’ve brought a project in on time — or, better yet, under budget — and how they did that,” she says.
Project management is one of the areas “that endure all economies and climates, where companies are constantly looking for people who understand the project and the systems development life cycles and make sure the project goals are closely aligned with the business objectives,” says Harvey Koeppel, executive director of the Center for CIO Leadership in New York.
Employers also need people with project management certificates, even at the vice president level, according to some headhunters. As of late July,
The Computing Technology Industry Association had awarded 20 per cent more Project+ certifications than in the previous year, says Gretchen Koch, director of skills development programs at CompTIA.
The ongoing convergence of voice, e-mail, video, instant messaging and other communications systems will continue to create demand for networking specialists with implementation experience.
For example, Scholastic Inc. in New York posted a job opening in November for a network convergence manager to help it create a virtual call center using voice over IP, says Saad Ayub, senior vice president and CIO at the children’s education company.
Those types of projects often require new skills as well. In 2008, for example, CRST International Inc. moved from a frame-relay network to AT&T’s Multiprotocol Label Switching network and installed Cisco’s VoIP system.
As part of that project, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based transportation company trained some of its IT staffers to become Cisco Certified Voice Professionals, says Steve Hannah, vice president of IT.
Network convergence projects will also heighten demand for workers with network security and data privacy acumen, Koeppel says, adding that “it’s not just pure [network] backbone and infrastructure skills” that are being sought by employers.
5. Business intelligence
Now more than ever, corporate executives want to be able to analyze customer and sales data in order to make informed decisions about business strategies.
That’s driving demand for business intelligence specialists across the board, including people with data mining, data warehousing and data management skills.
At Aspen Skiing Co., which operates four ski resorts in western Colorado, company officials will be making year-over-year comparisons on customer spending, including analyses of spending habits during the previous recession, says CIO Paul Major. “We’re going to have to get very granular with our analytics,” he says.
Meanwhile, there’s steady demand for IT professionals with experience using vendor-specific BI tools from companies such as Business Objects and Cognos, says Spencer Lee.
But the toughest people to find in this area are those who can help business managers understand the type of data they’re trying to analyze and how to interpret the results, she says. “What’s difficult,” she adds, “is to find someone who’s the full-meal deal.”
When it comes to demand for certain types of security professionals, those with SAP security experience “are probably the hottest of the hot right now,” says Herrin.
But interest in security professionals remains strong across the board. “Companies can’t ignore security requirements, even in tough economic times,” says Stephen Pickett, CIO at Penske Corp. and past president of the Society for Information Management.
There’s also strong interest in people with network and wireless security skills, as well as those with Certified Information Systems Security Professional accreditation.
7. Web 2.0
While many companies are just starting to noodle with corporate implementations of social networking applications such as MySpace and Facebook, “more and more companies are trying to reach their customers via the Web,” says Pickett.
Demand for Web 2.0 skills is also driven by the continuing expansion of business-to-business connections. For instance, Children’s Hospital and Health System in Milwaukee recently created a portal for roughly half of its physicians who work remotely.
The system provides them with access to summary medical data on patients, says Mike Jones, vice president and CIO.
8. Data center
Most of the glass-house buzz is about server and storage virtualization projects that help organizations lower their energy costs and shrink their data center footprints.
But few companies are recruiting specifically for data centre skills.
Instead, they’re retraining existing staff in VMware and other virtualization technologies.
For instance, Aspen Skiing is considering virtualizing up to 40 per cent of its servers in 2009, says Major. To achieve that, Aspen Skiing plans to rely on VMware and EMC to provide staff with the necessary training.
VoIP and projects involving unified communications continue to drive demand for blended telecommunications and networking skills, particularly among small to mid-size businesses that are just beginning to deploy these systems, says Spencer Lee.
Interest in Wi-Fi, WiMax, Bluetooth and related skills is also growing, says Koeppel, “particularly as cities look to WiMax as a feature to attract businesses.”
Hoffman is a former Computerworld writer. Contact him at email@example.com