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10/19/2007
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In Growing Job Market, IT Pros Get More For The Soft Skills

Two recent research reports show the IT job market keeps changing, making it tough for tech pros trying to stay current.

U.S. IT employment is showing healthy growth again, but the hot skills keep shifting, making for a tumultuous and complex market for any tech pro to navigate. Two recent reports spotlight the tension.

One report concludes that employers are now paying higher premiums for noncertified tech skills--areas like enterprise applications, e-commerce, and process management--than those paid for certified skills. That research comes from Foote Partners, which has done in-depth quarterly employer surveys of employers for eight years.

The difference in average pay premiums is small: Noncertified tech skills average an 8.08% premium above base pay, while certified skills average a 7.97% premium. But David Foote, Foote Partners' CEO and chief research officer, says that's a "huge difference in the world of pay stats" and part of a trend that's been growing over the past two years, as IT job growth has picked up. Foote Partners defines a premium as either a bonus or a portion of an employee's base salary that's paid because that person has a particular skill.

chart: The Job Growth Picture
In the recession years following the dot-com bust, employers put more emphasis on certified tech skills as they looked to rein in excesses of the boom and better justify tech salaries, and also as they turned their attention to infrastructure demands related to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Foote says. Over the last two years or so, the emphasis at many companies is swinging toward using IT to help create new products, boost profits and sales, and improve customer service and relationships. This translates into IT professional jobs requiring a more hybrid mix of technology skills, along with understanding the business and its customers.

"IT organizations aren't buried in the data center but are parts of the lines of business, business units, entrenched with users," Foote says. Companies still expect solid technical knowledge, and the hottest noncertified skills suggest a broad IT understanding--knowledge of enterprise business applications gets a 9.1% pay premium, up from 8.1% a year ago. Other hot noncertified categories are application development, Web and e-commerce, and databases. "Management and process" gets a 9.1% premium, up from 8.5%. Across noncertified skills, average premiums jumped from 6.9% in 2005 to 8.08% this year.

Some certifications still carry big premiums, such as an average 9.1% of base pay for security and 10% for project management. Still, the drop for certified skill premiums, from 8.26% in 2005 to to 7.97% this quarter, is sure to frustrate tech pros who invested time and often thousands of dollars in certification. Just 20% get reimbursed for certification training, our 2007 Salary Survey finds.

A HEALTHY JOB MARKET
The good news for IT pros is this change is happening amid expansion of U.S. tech employment, with the number of jobs rising 6% from a year ago to 3.68 million, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tech unemployment was 2% as of the third quarter, an improvement from 2.2% in 2006 and its eight-year high of 5.6% in the third quarter of 2003.

The biggest job growth categories continue to be software engineers, computer scientists and systems analysts, and IS managers. Two categories shrank: programmers declined 5%, while support specialists fell 4%. The jobs statistics continue trends that have marked IT employment's slow recovery from a fierce downturn between 2002 and 2004, when the number of jobs fell below 3.3 million.

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