Employers Are Hot On Application Developers

It's the IT job category where companies are looking to hire the most people, and it puts the biggest premium on fresh skills.
In the movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character, Benjamin, is famously given one word of advice on his future: plastics. If the 1967 classic were remade today (please don't), the word would be: software.

Of course, most graduates (or dropouts) won't be the next Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, or Bill Gates, but in a shaky economy like this one, if there's a safe, bankable major it's in computer science. This conclusion is supported by our recent InformationWeek IT staffing report, which found that companies are anxious to hire security and application development talent, as well as application delivery and database management pros.

Our survey also found that the largest needs--where companies are looking to hire the most IT people--are in application development. Among the survey respondents who said developers are a top need, the majority said their companies will increase such staffing by up to 10% over the next two years. Others have much greater needs. Some 7% said they'd increase application development staffing by 21% to 30%, and 11% said they'd increase it by more than 30%. Those are huge percentages, among the highest of the IT job categories in our survey.

Companies are generally looking to add staff or contractors to meet their application development needs. Only 21% are looking at retraining as the main way, a third see a mix of retraining and finding new talent, while 27% are looking only outside the company to fill their needs.

It's hard to say why retraining isn't more popular. It could be that existing staffers already are fully engaged, and that there aren't too many Cobol programmers or NetWare admins to re-mint as Python experts. It could also be that companies are simply looking for whiz kids who can pound out code in modern languages. Still, it's not necessarily true that you need to be a Ruby or PHP expert to find work. There are still plenty of companies doing C++ and Java programming in hot industries such as financial services and healthcare.

In the longer run, companies that ranked application development as a top need aren't necessarily looking to outsource that work. Survey respondents said that in two years, on average, 73% of their companies' internal programming teams would consist of existing employees (47%) or soon-to-be-hired employees (26%), the rest comprised primarily of either short-term contractors (14%) or long-term contractors (11%). We defined long-term contractors as those with stints longer than 18 months.

While our survey found concern about the availability of developers, the pressure to find developers isn't necessarily slowing technology adoption. Only 39% of survey respondents said they were slowed because they couldn't find the right people.

For those people with the right skills, the high demand results in a pretty good salary. In this year's InformationWeek Salary Survey, the median income for staff developers was $95,000, up from $92,000 last year and $90,000 in 2010. One downside: Application development is a volatile field. Among the companies represented by our IT Staffing Survey respondents, 25% are hiring more in app dev than in any other IT area, but 22% said it was the IT area where they're cutting the most.

While every IT area requires a constant refreshing of skills, developers must be extra careful to keep their expertise current. Companies will pay for retraining (61%), and some will offer raises (35%), but all in all this is an area where successful workers are self-motivated to stay on top of their craft. And depending on the nature of the company, it's a good idea for developers to stay aware of the latest skills that are in demand and keep their resumés up to date.

The financial performance of companies that depend heavily on software and applications also tends to be more volatile. That's because their products can be rendered obsolete by new competition (imagine being on the Lotus or NetWare development teams), and the companies themselves are often small and dependent on the success of a single product. Good programmers can almost always find a new job, and in many cases they regularly have to.

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