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.

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."

5. Your Specialized Skill Earns Less Than It Did 5 Years Ago

While no IT skill ever really dies, a number of specialties are earning less than they did five years ago. For instance, voice communications workers, including telephony specialists, earn less today because of the integration of voice and data. Another area is Web infrastructure, where website administrators and Web content specialists might not command the same pay premiums they once did.

"That's a case of supply rising to meet demand," Van De Voort says. "There has been almost an insatiable demand for people to Web-enable businesses. Now we've backfilled those. But the demand for Web application developers continues to be very strong." Pay has also gone down for user, client and desk-side support professionals, because many companies have outsourced their first-level support.

The hot IT skills that will increase in value over the next six months and beyond are in the areas of analytics, virtualization, security, ERP, mobile technology, application development and HTML5, according to Foote Partners, an IT workforce research firm.

"There are lots of opportunities in the service industry as a hybrid subject matter expert in lines of business or corporate departments, like IT HR, IT marketing or IT finance," says David Foote, president of Foote Partners. "Get a broader tool belt -- that will give you possibilities."

What You Can Do Right Now

If you feel like you're in a rut but you're reluctant to leave your current employer, there are other ways to reboot your career. "Look for assignments that stretch the boundaries of your current job," says Van De Voort. For instance, the CIO gets requests all the time from department leaders to help with the IT functions on outside projects ranging from United Way campaigns to marketing initiatives. HR staff may come to IT asking for help with new policy development, or the finance department may need IT assistance with procedure and strategy development. "Make clear to your boss that you are interested in those cross-functional assignments," Van De Voort adds.

Regardless of your circumstances, the decision to stay put or move on is under your control. Foote offers some tough love.

"If you see yourself as a victim -- of a boss, a company, a slow industry or the economic times -- then you don't stand a chance. Others with your same skills are going to blow right by you," Foote says. Being in a rut, he says, "is a state of mind that you can choose to have or not." People who see the glass as half full "will rent their house and put themselves in an international job search; some have even moved overseas. You've got to get up every morning, go to work and be happy with what you're doing. You have to take control of your career," says Foote.

The senior DBA from Chicago took that approach. Today he lives in Oklahoma and works as a DBA at an oil company. "I'm respected, have access to the greatest technology, and I'm compensated well," he says. He received a 13% bonus and expects a pay raise of about 10% later this month. He also enjoys flextime and access to lots of training. "I'm very happy," he adds, "and I'm here for the long haul."

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at stcollett@aol.com.

Next: Employees rate satisfaction, security and stress

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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