Employers Get Choosy With Skills

Companies seek business-savvy pros with security, networking, and other in-demand talents

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

September 28, 2001

11 Min Read

Some IT skills are hot even though the economy's not, and others are hot just because the economy's not. Driving the demand for today's most desired skills are companies' quests to optimize existing systems, maximize IT security, and improve services--even as they handle fewer smaller-scale technology projects than they did a year ago.

Among the IT skills most in demand are those related to security, wireless, database, networking, and infrastructure technologies, as well as help-desk and other support talents.

With so many more job candidates available, companies that are hiring are looking for people who can offer not only solid tech expertise but business savvy as well. Companies are seeking out those types of IT professionals because they can help strengthen existing IT environments while adding new Web-based capabilities that improve internal processes and customer service. Well-rounded IT professionals--those with a good understanding of business--can contribute a plethora of knowledge to help companies launch initiatives more quickly and to contribute to problem-solving efforts.

The specialty most in demand, headhunters and employers say, is IT security. "Companies are looking for security talent for work ranging from auditing current systems to implementing more-secure systems," says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of RHI Consulting, an IT recruiting firm in Menlo Park, Calif.

Lee expects the demand for security skills, which has been high in recent months, to grow because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "Security is on the top of everyone's mind now," she says. That includes firewall security as well as technology to protect confidential information. Lee says companies are seeking--and trying to keep--IT professionals with security expertise in tools and products such as Check Point, Cisco Picks, Raptor, and Watch Guard, which address firewall and data protection. Data-storage protection also fits into the security theme, Lee says.

"As companies decide what and how much information should be available online, they also want to be sure it's secure," she says.

Michael Amisano, who's been a security analyst for four years, is well-aware that his talents are in demand. Amisano's job at the Garden City, N.Y., IT facility of Cendant Corp., a New York provider of travel, real-estate, and financial services, involves firewall intrusion detection and security for Unix servers that process Internet transactions for Avis Rent A Car System Inc. and other Cendant businesses.

Though he's happy at Cendant, where he's worked since November, Amisano also says he's "always looking to see what else is out there." In that spirit, he recently posted his resumé online and received five responses in a week.

Amisano didn't pursue the job leads because all five positions were in New York City, and he prefers working and living on Long Island. That aside, he says the level of employer interest he saw wasn't bad, especially in light of the current economic and IT job climate. Amisano knows other types of IT professionals, including programmers, who've been laid off from their jobs and are finding it difficult to get work. "This shows me that there's a lot of demand still in security, especially for people with experience," he says. "Many companies don't want to train people for security from scratch."

For EDS, hot skills in the IT talent pool include systems architecture, network architecture, systems administration, and LAN and WAN expertise, says Gordon Markley, the IT services firm's human-resources recruiter for the southwest region. Markley also says securing data related to Web-based applications is important, in light of the brisk movement of applications to the Web.

EDS regularly retrains and redeploys its talent to fulfill client needs, but it's also hiring for those skills, something that's become easier to do in this economy. The volume of resumés Markley receives has doubled in recent months.


While Fannie Mae, one of the nation's leading lenders, is doing very little IT hiring right now, it's looking for professionals skilled in Unix systems and Oracle and Sybase databases. "There's still a lot of demand for these people," says Bill Pugh, Fannie Mae's senior VP of enterprise systems management. "Last year, they were impossible to find, so we had to supplement our talent with contractors. Those people were paid a premium. Now we're able to hire some of those people," saving Fannie Mae contracting fees, Pugh says.

A number of companies are making hires under similar circumstances for key IT talent, such as Java programmers, Web developers, and other Web-related professionals, who were hard to find during the height of the IT talent shortage last year. Many businesses are still moving applications such as self-service apps for customers and business partners to the Web.

Distance-learning firm Pacific Resources for Education and Learning still finds it difficult in general to hire needed IT talent, says director of technology Steve Baxendale. That's partly because of Pacific Resources' Honolulu location. The relatively low level of high-tech activity in Hawaii puts IT talent in short supply there, especially for the types of IT professionals the company needs, Baxendale says.

Pacific Resources is seeking database developers, a Webmaster, and experts in Flash technology. The company, which provides online learning to teachers and students, looks to the U.S. mainland for recruitment of much of its IT staff.

But while some might envision Hawaii as a paradise, it's an expensive place to live. In addition, the fact that tech-heavy companies in the state are comparatively small tends to keep IT salaries lower than on the mainland. A third problem is that because Pacific Resources is a nonprofit organization, its salaries tend to be lower anyway, Baxendale says.

Nonetheless, he's finding that the dot-com bust is helping to draw interest in his company from a lot more job candidates than before. Pacific Resources recently received about 80 resumés for Webmaster and database-developer positions. In the past, the company would have been lucky to get 20 or 30 resumés, Baxendale says.

"It's still hard to find the right person for the positions," he says. "But it's a lot easier" than before. In fact, Pacific Resources recently hired a database developer who's relocating from Maryland.

Overall, when it comes to compensation, IT workers with desirable talents won't necessarily be offered high salaries. For instance, help-desk and other support staff continue to be very much in demand. "There's a need for highly skilled help-desk professionals with good tech skills and strong customer-services skills," RHI's Lee says. But in the big picture, salaries for such jobs aren't nearly as high as for other IT posts.

In fact, help-desk and other support staff are among the lowest-paid IT employees, according to the findings of an online salary survey of 19,206 IT professionals conducted earlier this year by InformationWeek Research. Data based on responses from 10,526 IT employees indicates that the median total cash compensation of IT help-desk and support staff is $51,000 a year. This contrasts sharply with the median total cash compensation of the highest-earning IT staffers, wireless-infrastructure professionals, who make $95,000.

Networking staffers--who headhunters and employers alike say are among those whose skills are hot--also wound up on the lower end of the salary scale. The median compensation for those professionals is $66,000, according to the InformationWeek National Salary Survey.

The median compensation for other in-demand staff positions includes Web infrastructure, $82,000; Web security, $80,000; security and database analysis and development, $79,000; and Internet and intranet applications, $77,000.

Recruiters and employers emphasize the desirability of IT professionals who can offer employers a combination of technical experience and business skills. Well-rounded techies, those who possess business savvy as well as technical proficiencies, bring to their work a keen understanding of the business cases that underpin technology initiatives.

Bill Mitchin, VP and CIO at American Health Holding Inc., a medical-management company in Columbus, Ohio, says he's seeking just such "multiskilled, multitalented people." Mitchin wants to hire application developers who not only have strong programming skills in C++, Java, and Visual Basic, but who also can wear a number of hats. That means finding application developers "who can also provide customer support and jump on to other things," he says.

Technology itself has given IT professionals the means to apply their skills in new arenas by freeing them from more-mundane work, Mitchin says. For instance, in the past, application development was a slow process that required many people, such as analysts, programmers, and testers, with a variety of highly specialized skills. "Those days are gone," Mitchin says. "We need rapid development to compete."

Application development tools have come a long way toward automating the process. "The code can be generated by itself," Mitchin says. So nowadays, he expects his application developers to fully understand the business process as well as the technology.

Jeff Dellinger, national director of resource strategy at IT services provider Experio Solutions LLC, which is owned by Hitachi Ltd., says he's seeking people with expertise in installing enterprise application integration software as well as a good understanding of business functions. Dellinger says Experio's clients "demand and expect" such skills from a company that typically gets client projects up and running in the first half-day. "Our teams are small 'A' teams similar to a well-trained and focused SEAL team," he says.

How does Experio assemble such teams? "Our approach to hiring is finding the best of the best," Dellinger says. For Experio, that means bringing aboard candidates who come equipped with outstanding communication, interpersonal, and presentation skills, in addition to thorough knowledge of technology and experience in its clients' industries.

What skills do IT professionals want to learn these days? Eric Goldfarb, CIO at IT training firm Global Knowledge Inc., says many IT pros who turn to his firm for training in the networking category want to enhance their skills or learn new ones in areas such TCP/IP, voice over IP, networking fundamentals, and security technologies. Goldfarb also says there's still heavy demand for Java programming, E-commerce-infrastructure, and database classes, particularly those that focus on SQL Server and Oracle.

"Web development isn't going away," he says. "And at the end of the day, you still need a [sound] infrastructure--that's not discretionary."

The students that Global Knowledge trains are a mix of people sent by their companies to expand their skills and those who seek to acquire new ones.

Goldfarb says there's been less demand in recent months for training in enterprise resource planning, but some observers see a slight uptick in demand for those skills, particularly those related to maintenance and upgrades for platforms such as Oracle and SAP. Says Experio's Dellinger: "Two or three years ago, when the ERP market began to decline, a lot of people got out of that skill set. Those people transitioned to E-commerce and Web-enabling skills. Now a demand [for ERP-related skills] is coming back, somewhat, but there's a smaller supply of talent."

Uncertainty about when the economy will rebound makes it difficult for headhunters and employers to predict what IT skills will be popular in coming months. Still, many say they expect the demand for security and networking talent to remain steady or perhaps rise, especially as companies' increasing use of wireless devices spurs them to expand remote access and wireless applications.

Don Hamilton, VP and general manager of Retrieval Dynamics Corp., a Sarasota, Fla., developer of mobile-device middleware, says his startup expects to be hiring in the coming months--particularly for C++ programming, Java, wireless, and XML skills--because of its initiatives in product development and customer service. While Florida has generally been a tough market for finding IT talent, Hamilton expects it will be easier than in the past. "There's a lot more qualified people out there looking," he says, pointing out that Retrieval Dynamics is in a good position to attract this talent because so many dot-coms have folded, limiting the availability of jobs with especially lucrative compensation packages and supercharged work environments.

Allen Jerinsky, VP of technical services at RocketHorse Inc., a startup in New York, also expects it'll be easier for him to find the talent he needs, particularly Java programmers, since so many dot-coms in New York's Silicon Alley have gone belly-up. Jerinsky says RocketHorse would like to double its three-person Java programming staff for development of the Web-content tools the company sells.

But the company isn't quite ready to hire yet--not until its own business situation stabilizes: RocketHorse recently transformed itself into a developer of Web-content tools, after initially focusing on client-server enterprise resource planning systems, Jerinsky says.

As a result, RocketHorse cut its 22-person head count by more than half. Many of those let go were IT workers with client-server skills, such as PowerBuilder. "Those skills aren't needed here now," Jerinsky says.

Just as PowerBuilder and other once-hot skills have cooled off recently, the IT skills in demand now might lose their sizzle by next year. But change is sure to bring a new wave of desirable skills to take their place.

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