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IT pros adapt to stay relevant -- and employed -- in IT jobs field

The fast pace of technological growth is nothing new, but professionals who want to keep IT jobs must evolve to stay competitive.

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Need-to-know IT job requirements

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The rapid pace of technological change brings with it a steady stream new IT jobs. New technologies emerge, gain acceptance and are cast aside with little fanfare. This is not a place for those who desire routine.

While holding an IT job means one is seldom bored, the downside is the position is often not secure. As technologies fall out of favor, sometimes experienced individuals go as well, and that is happening in some well-established corporations.

Consequently, data center personnel need to stay on top of what skills are hot – and which are not – to position themselves for professional growth. With change so constant, making that distinction has become more difficult than ever before.

The IT job market is sending techies a decidedly mixed message. Technology firms – defined as corporations in the computer, electronics, and telecommunications fields – announced 51,529 job cuts in the first half of 2012, a 260 percent increase from the 14,308 cuts announced during the same period in 2011, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. The huge increase stemmed largely from Hewlett-Packard Co.'s decision to eliminate 34,300 positions.

In addition, desired skill sets for IT jobs are dramatically changing. The rise of automation and virtualization has altered the role of the data center technician. Their work once centered on a deep understanding of how hardware worked. The majority of their day was spent configuring various devices and then troubleshooting them when problems arose.

But servers, storage systems and network switches have become much smarter. Rather than a tedious, linear process requiring many hours, configuring a system now can take just minutes with the device  – rather than data center staff  – doing the bulk of the work.

As a result, data center specialists must acquire different skills.

"We are seeing a shift from times when IT valued deep technical skills to one where the staff needs managerial skills as well," said Dr. Ward Ulmer, associate dean for Walden University's School of Information Systems and Technology.

This change may create a ripple effect. Not that long ago, professional certifications, such as Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA), and Oracle Certified Professional  were passports to high-demand, high-paying jobs. But that outlook may be evolving.

"I don't see corporations requiring certifications now as much as they did in the past," said Tammy Browning, senior vice president for Yoh Services LLC, a technology staffing firm.

On the other hand are reports that IT professionals remain in demand. Robert Half International expects IT salaries to rise 4.5 percent in 2012, which is much higher than the 1 percent to 2 percent increases seen in the U.S. overall.

Pockets of data center IT jobs are garnering interest. The upcoming move to Windows 8 is necessitating infrastructure upgrades for many businesses.

"Companies still need to work through new operating system upgrades," said Ulmer. Robert Half International pegged Windows administration as the fourth-most desired IT skill set at 42 percent.

Some job titles are in high demand because of movement to the cloud. Rather than eliminating IT infrastructure jobs, cloud computing seems to be spurring demand for network engineers as companies revamp and upgrade their network connections. Robert Half International listed network administrators – 64 percent of IT managers expect to add these individuals in 2012 – as the IT industry's hottest job title.

The interest is driving salaries higher. Network engineers are expected to see their salaries rise 5.8 percent due to increased demand in 2012, to a range of $75,000 to $107,750 per year, according to Robert Half International.

Companies are also in the market for security professionals. IT security jobs have seen a 50 percent spike in demand, compared to 2010, according to IT Security Jobs.co.uk, an IT security job site. The site added that average salaries have also seen a substantial rise: 16 percent per annum. Furthermore, pay for IT security contract positions has gone up 6 percent in the year.

As the IT market continues to evolve, so do the degree programs at various universities. Two years ago, Walden University separated its business and IT programs, which had been funneled into the same college.

"There was so much demand for IT professionals that we needed to break it out and provide them with the skills needed in today's job market," said Ulmer.

The university offers two undergraduate degrees. A bachelor of science in Information Technology enables students to concentrate in areas, like networking and operations or security and forensics. A bachelor of science in Computer Information Technology is designed to provide students with experience in group analysis and design projects; the skills to communicate effectively with co-workers, employers, and other professionals; and the ability to use IT management tools.

The curriculum is in a state of flux; Walden recently added courses in mobile application development programming.  Companies want more wireless network managers: Robert Half International found 38 percent of companies plan such an expansion in 2012, making it the fourth-most popular skill. Salaries for wireless network managers are expected to rise 5.9 percent, ranging from $79,250 to $108,500.

While established vendors, such as HP, are cutting their workforce, the emergence of cloud computing and mobility are spurring demand for network managers.

So how can techies ensure themselves a promising future?

"To be successful, IT professionals need to flexible because the job market can be quite fluid," said Ulmer.

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in data center issues. He is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.

 

This was last published in August 2012

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IT skills don't just cycle economically the way other broad categories do;one year, public-school teaching is competitive, the next, it's nursing and transportation, and eventually it comes back to teaching. Several of the skills or specialties Korzeniowski rightly characterizes as "not hot" aren't just out of favor temporarily. They'll never return.
That realization results in a different attitude about careers. Not only must you be eager and able to learn new material, but you also need to recognize what to leave behind. To save the results of a runaway sixty-hour computation by cleverly attaching to an unused hardware port with a spare VMS workstation and using cat and dd to get at the process table directly might have been a high point of your career. Now, such an exploit belongs in the "hobby" part of your resume, because it's cheaper to buy a new host, or even cheaper to rent a few minutes on a supercomputer-in-the-cloud, than your time to be clever this way is worth. Down-to-the-metal, syscall-level knowledge still is demanding and difficult and occasionally effective; I will admire your expertise in it. At the commercial level, though, demand for work of this sort is confined to a few very specialized operations, and won't ever grow back.
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