Microsoft skills: What's hot and what's not?

SQL Server, Azure, SharePoint and .Net among the Microsoft skills in demand

hot job skills microsoft windows server
Stephen Sauer

It's a good time to be in IT. Job seekers have the advantage as employers struggle to hire tech talent in key areas such as cloud computing, mobility, security and data analytics. Companies are raising salaries and piling on the perks -- but not for every IT role.

For Microsoft-centric IT pros who are looking to expand their skills and boost their careers, we asked staffing experts and compensation specialists to identify which Microsoft skills are most valuable.

In general, the hottest Microsoft skills align with big-picture IT talent demands. Companies can’t seem to hire enough data architects, business intelligence specialists and other data pros – which puts SQL Server experts in an enviable position, for instance. Web, software and mobile app developers are also in high demand, which benefits IT pros with .NET and SharePoint skills. Here are some specifics:

SQL Server 

"Demand for SQL Server continues to be really, really strong. Everybody's trying to figure out ways to take the data they have and do more with it," says John Reed, senior executive director at recruiting and staffing specialist Robert Half Technology (RHT). According to RHT’s 2016 Salary Guide, candidates with Microsoft SQL Server skills can command a 10% premium above starting salaries for data and database administration positions.

Finding a skilled SQL Server pro is a very difficult recruit, agrees Michael Smiles, a regional delivery manager with a focus on Java and Microsoft support services at IT staffing specialist TEKsystems. There are approximately four job openings for SQL/business intelligence for every one job seeker, says Smiles, citing data from job site and HR software maker CareerBuilder.

SQL Server is one of only four Microsoft skills that have grown in value in the last three to six months, according to David Foote of Foote Partners. The research firm, which specializes in IT compensation, tracks 835 IT skills (certified and noncertified skills) and publishes quarterly reports on the value of those skills. Skills premiums represent the extra money that employers are willing to pay for certain expertise, and they’re measured as a percentage of salary. "Companies are investing in a skill because they believe it adds value to them, and they set a price on that," Foote says.

SQL Server garners a skills premium of between 7% and 11% of base salary, with a median of 9%, Foote says. “It’s up 12.5% over the last six months," he notes. "Every time they release a new version it usually gives it a little bump."

A related skill, SQL Server Management Studio (SSMS), also is performing fairly well, Foote notes. Experience with SSMS nets a skills premium of between 6% and 10%, with a median of 8%. An integrated environment for managing a SQL Server infrastructure, SSMS is a relatively new addition to the skills Foote Partners tracks.

.Net

On the development front, "we continue to see not explosive, but really solid demand for .Net development skills. A lot of organizations want people with that experience," Reed says. Candidates with .NET development skills can command an 8% premium over starting salaries for application development positions, RHT reports.

IT leaders identify programmers and developers as the most critical role for their department’s success in 2016, says Smiles, citing TEKsystems’ survey data. And the roles are hard to fill: There are roughly six open developer positions for every one developer job seeker, according to CareerBuilder stats.

“Microsoft, and specifically .Net, is right in the thick of things with nearly four open positions per active job seeker. While some other development platforms did better in the enterprise-size environments early on, it seems that .Net has made up a lot of ground here. Through 2015, .Net’s growth at 6.3% is double that of the applications market overall,” Smiles says.

SharePoint

SharePoint, like .Net, remains a sought-after skill in part because of its broad use in enterprise environments.

“Companies see the benefit. It's part of their environment. They continue to look for ways to update and enhance it, to find new ways to use it, to get more out of it. So they're always looking for individuals to help them on those platforms,” Reed says. "It's not explosive, because it's not new technology, but the demand continues to be really solid.”

Candidates with Sharepoint skills can command a 9% premium over starting salaries, RHT reports.

Windows 10

As enterprise adoption of Windows 10 picks up, demand for administrators who’ve worked with the new platform is increasing.

As more deployments happen, you're starting to see more requests for individuals to help with preparing for the deployment, assisting in the deployment, training, post go-live support, all those kinds of things,” Reed says. “If you have experience in that, that's a major plus,” he says.

Fortunately, as demand is increasing so, too, is the number of people with Windows 10 experience. Finding IT pros who have been through a rollout “is a lot easier now than it was several months ago because more and more organizations are migrating, so more and more people are building that competency. They're getting through some implementations, gaining experience,” Reed says.

Azure

Demand for cloud computing talent shows no sign of abating, and Microsoft's Azure platform is right in the mix.

“Microsoft Azure is one of the top competitors within the cloud. In the past two years, according to historical data within CareerBuilder, the demand for Azure is six times higher than the number of available IT professionals in the market,” says Katie Powers, a national delivery manager at TEKsystems with a focus on network infrastructure services.

"Anything in the cloud" is an "extremely hot skill set," and among the hardest positions to fill, says Amanda Schloss, a senior technical recruiter at Mondo. "If a good candidate comes on the market, they're gone the next day," she says.

Azure certifications pay well above the average premium that employees typically receive for certifications, Foote says.

“Although Microsoft Azure has declined a little bit in the last six months, it's still paying the equivalent of 9% of base,” Foote says. “That's a very good number." By comparison, the average pay bump among all 395 certifications in Foote Partners' survey is roughly 7.1%.

Office 365

When Microsoft first rolled out Office 365, there was a lot more chatter than actual implementation. As deployments multiply, demand is rising, says RHT’s Reed. "Qualified people are hard find,” he says. "But we certainly see a lot more people now that have had experience with or exposure to [Office 365], so it's not one of those rare birds.”

“As organizations are moving to cloud environments, Office 365 has become a more highly sought-after skill set to hire,” says TEKsystems’ Powers. “We are seeing the trend of hiring Office 365 professionals across all verticals and industries in both enterprise and SMB environments.”

“IT professionals who have previously supported Lync are now beginning to learn newer technologies that are also increasing in demand from various organizations – Skype for Business, specifically, which is included in the latest version of Office 365,” Powers adds.

Dynamics

Among the four noncertified Microsoft skills for which Foote Partners reports positive growth, Microsoft Dynamics (the software maker's suite of ERP and CRP apps) made the biggest jump. "Dynamics is up 25% in value in the last six months,” Foote says. It’s also among the highest paying Microsoft-related skills, according to Foote. Dynamics garners a skills premium of between 8% and 12% of salary, with a median of 10%.

(Among the other skills that gained value in Foote Partners’ analysis, SQL Server increased 12.5% and Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server gained 14%. The fourth gainer, Microsoft Commerce Server, “confounds me,” Foote says; its unexpected growth could be due to a small sample size, he notes.)

System Center Configuration Manager

On the help desk and desktop support front, experience with Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) stands out as a hot skill. Enterprise mobility and BYOD initiatives are driving demand for this systems management stalwart, according to RHT. Another impetus is the new version, which is driving recruitment of SCCM experts among companies that want to migrate to the updated platform and take advantage of new functionality. (Microsoft announced the commercial release of System Center Configuration Manager 1511 in December.)

"Anytime you have a new version of something, you see a spike in demand,” Reed says.

Skills vs. certifications

In general, having the right skills and experience outweighs certifications.

Work experience is the No. 1 hiring criteria, says RHT’s Reed. However, having a certification can help distinguish one candidate from the others, if they all have comparable experience, he says.

"Most times, a client doesn’t say, 'Oh, I want an MCSE [Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert],’ per se, but if you have a person with that certification, it can absolutely create a more compelling case for them to pull the trigger,” Reed says.

On the compensation front, too, experience trumps certifications.

Foote Partners tracks 21 Microsoft-related noncertified skills and 20 Microsoft-related certifications. As a group, noncertified Microsoft skills are performing better than Microsoft certifications, even for the same technologies, Foote says. The 21 noncertified skills grew, on average, 2.3% in value over the last three months of 2015. That translates into a pay premium that's equivalent to roughly 7% of salary.

"You're earning somewhere between 5% and 8.5% -- you're probably averaging about a 7% bump in pay," Foote says of candidates with Microsoft-related noncertified skills.

Cash premiums for certified Microsoft skills, on the other hand, took a hit during the last three months of 2015, Foote says. "As a group, Microsoft certifications are actually in negative numbers over the last three months. They've lost six-tenths of a percent. But over the last year, they're up about 1.3%."

That kind of fluctuation isn't usual.

"There's tremendous volatility in the market," Foote says. Every three months, 25% of the 835 certified and noncertified skills that Foote Partners tracks change in value.

"If the demand starts to crest but the supply of talent in a particular area is increasing, that basically narrows the gap and the price goes down. But just because something is going down in value doesn't mean that people don't want it," Foote says. "It just means that the gap between supply and demand is narrowing." 

Advice for employers

For companies that are trying to land IT pros with sought-after Microsoft skills, remember that it’s not just about cash compensation, says TEKsystems’ Smiles.

Job seekers “want to know what business problems they will be tasked with solving and how are they adding value to the bottom line,” Smiles says. “While salary will always be a very important factor for these job seekers, if you have a project or business driver that will stimulate their interest, you will have a much better chance of attracting these hard to find/hire employees.”

This story, "Microsoft skills: What's hot and what's not?" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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