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5 signs your IT career is stuck in a rut

Some IT workers are caught in cash-strapped industries, companies or cities -- but aren't budging. Experts explain when it's time to bounce.

April 4, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - In December 2007, a 49-year-old senior database administrator at a Chicago investment firm decided he couldn't take it anymore. Excessive hours and oppressive management had taken their toll; he was also worn down by the fear and uncertainty of a financial crisis that threatened even the most revered institutions. His career was officially in a rut.

"I decided I had to get out of the investment community because they were killing me," he says. Was his work performance, the financial crisis or simply bad management to blame? With his 50th birthday just around the corner, he recalls, "I said to myself, 'I'm only going to do this [job hunting] one more time.' " He had to find the right fit.

Today, many IT professionals are searching for the same answers. Should you stay in your current position? Ask for a raise? Move to a new city? In tough economic times, it's hard to tell whether your industry, your company or your own performance is to blame for your career woes. Here are five signs that will help you tell the difference.

1. You Receive Lower Pay Increases Than Your Co-workers

Even with limited budgets, more companies are paying to retain top performers. "They're not willing to give out an average pay increase for everybody to maintain everybody," says Lily Mok, an analyst at Gartner. "In our survey findings, top performers in IT can get a 4% increase compared to low performers, [who receive] zero or less than 1%."

What's more, companies have raised the bar even higher for achieving "top performer" status. Over the past three to four years, the percentage of employees rated "below average" on performance reviews has tripled, according to a 2010 Mercer study of more than 1,100 organizations. "Many companies have implemented forced distributions of performance ratings," explains David Van De Voort, principal consultant in human capital for the HR consulting firm. "Managers are told that just X percent of their people should get the highest rating -- forcing the bell curve on them. We've seen more than 20% of the workforce moved out of being rated 'average' or 'meets expectations' and into the lower categories. Managers are making tougher calls on rating people's performance."

In 2007, more than 50% of employees received midlevel performance ratings. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 30%. Consider also that many low performers had already lost their jobs in 2008-09, so more productive workers were pushed down to the lower ranks, Van De Voort adds.

But don't get too discouraged, Mok says. The problem could be temporary. "A low performance rating is not necessarily an indication of you personally, but relative to the rest of the organization," she explains.

2. You're Not Being Trained or Reskilled, Even in Bad Business Times

Most companies that expect to rebound from difficult times want to keep employees' skills sharp. "If you're not getting trained, reskilled and refreshed, then you're certainly going to be sitting in a rut," or the business may not be expected to survive, says Diane Berry, a Gartner analyst specializing in IT workforce management and retention issues.

In fact, in lieu of pay raises and bonuses, many companies have created career management programs that help assure top performers that they are valued and encourage them to stay.

Some 64% of companies in the Mercer survey said they have increased their focus on career development. If a company is interested in holding on to a talented employee, "they're having conversations about the person's career" or sending emails about career exploration programs to attend, says Van De Voort.

3. You're Doing Two or More Jobs, With no Reward in Sight

If you think you're doing two jobs but aren't being compensated for the extra work, then you may be in a rut, says Sheila Greco, president and CEO of Sheila Greco Associates, a recruiting firm in Amsterdam, N.Y. "I'm OK with people doing one and a half jobs during these down times, but some companies are losing staff and not replacing them," she notes. "You should be compensated in some way." Some of Greco's clients are finding creative ways to reward overextended employees. "They're not giving salary increases, but they're giving them a week's vacation," she says.

4. You're a Telecommuter

If you don't work in the same physical space as your boss, that's probably a sign that your job could be outsourced, Van De Voort says. "Companies are going to keep sending jobs overseas" to take advantage of cheap labor, he says. "So if you're a telecommuter, you're at more risk than if you are in a job where you regularly have face-to-face contact with your boss, colleagues and especially with customers."

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