Opinion: The hottest IT skills survive a cool economy

The vast majority of individuals who enter the high-tech workforce come to their jobs with a natural curiosity and interest in the latest gadget, device or technology. This curiosity typically doesn't go away -- it only increases as the IT professional gains more experience.

In Computerworld's 2008 Salary Survey, 84% of the individuals queried said that they're either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with their decision to pursue a career in IT. A big part of IT worker satisfaction comes from the opportunity to work with the latest and greatest innovations the industry has to offer. Those employees also gain satisfaction from being able to broaden and deepen the skills they use to stay current with the fast-changing world of IT.

That's a good thing. Because as we head into 2009, IT professionals will be asked to do a lot more, even if they're not paid a lot more.

Companies across virtually all industries are taking a closer look at next year's spending because of the uncertainty over how long the economic downturn will last and how deep it will be. With budgets flat or shrinking, companies will need to be more creative in maximizing their existing assets -- both people and equipment. When it comes to technology, they're trying to get more use out of their existing IT infrastructure. That will require asking more from their IT staffs. (Read ongoing coverage of the economy and its impact on IT.)

This is a time for IT professionals to shine. The smart use of technology can support businesses even in the most unfortunate economic climate. Companies that offer products and services that are truly original, save time, boost productivity and demonstrate cost savings will prosper even in a downturn. Highly skilled, multitalented IT professionals can make that happen. The IT worker who demonstrates his value in multiple areas is the one who's most likely to be rewarded financially -- whether business is good or bad.

So which technology areas should IT workers look at when deciding which new skills to seek?

Computerworld's survey identifies Web developers, network administrators and information security managers as jobs that received higher-than-average pay hikes. These types of positions will continue to be in high demand -- even in a down economy.

And security credential are in especially high demand among employers across a broad spectrum of industries. A 2008 Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) survey of 3,500 IT managers found that security topped the list of the technology skills that are most important to organizations today. But the same survey found that there is a significant gap in the security skills available in today's tech workplace; that gap was identified by comparing the percentage of respondents saying workers are proficient in security and the percentage saying that the skill is important.

Among respondents from nine countries with established IT industries (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S.), 73% of the respondents identified security, firewalls and data privacy as the IT skills that are most important to their organizations today. But just 57% of the same group said their IT employees are proficient in security. That's a gap of 16 percentage points.

The gap is even larger when the same question was answered by IT professionals in five countries where the emergence of a strong IT industry is relatively recent (China, India, Poland, Russia and South Africa). Among those respondents, 76% identified security as the top skill their organizations need, while just 57% said their current tech staff is proficient in security. That's a gap of 19 percentage points.

The scope of challenges to IT infrastructure continues to expand, ranging from external threats such as viruses, worms, hackers and spyware; to internal threats from employees within the organization. Combined with key technology trends, such as the increasing pervasiveness of remote access for mobile employees and the implementation of wireless networks, IT departments continue to struggle in the ongoing battle to secure communications, data and networks.

Tech workers looking to keep their skills out front of employers' future needs would be wise to focus on wireless technologies. In all but two of the 14 countries queried in the CompTIA skills survey, IT managers said wireless skills will increase the most in importance over the next five years. Wireless skills ranked second in South Africa (behind security) and France (behind Web-based technologies).

Among specific industries, IT managers in health care (63%) and education (63%) were more likely to identify wireless technology as the skill that will be most important five years from now. IT managers in the auto/manufacturing sector (48%) were less likely to consider wireless important.

Other skills expected to grow in importance in the coming years include Web-based technologies (such as Web 2.0, service-oriented architecture, software as a service, rich Internet applications and AJAX) and specific programming languages.

Taking on additional duties and pursuing new skills requires a delicate balance, but the career benefits of doing so are real.

Gretchen Koch is the director of the Education to Careers program for the Computing Technology Industry Association.

Next: How we conducted the survey

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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