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Solid Money, Worried Minds

Raises are back, and the average IT manager's salary approaches six figures. So why are they so grim about their careers?

To paraphrase a famous Chinese proverb, may you live in challenging times.

For business-technology professionals these days, that's certainly the case.

"Who wants to go to work and be bored to death?" says Stephen Valdez, a staff member on the IT risk-assessment team at financial-services firm Capital One Financial Corp. Challenge is a big reason Valdez chose to specialize in IT security. "You come in every day, and there's a new challenge. It's exciting each day, no doldrums about it."

For seven years, InformationWeek has surveyed IT staff and managers--this year, 10,786 full-time IT professionals completed our Web survey--and they consistently cite challenge as the most important aspect of their jobs. The 2004 survey is no different, with 56% of IT staffers and 68% of managers choosing job challenge as what matters most to them, even above pay. Yet, a disconnect exists between what they seek and what they experience: Only one-third of IT staff and 44% of management say they're being challenged by their jobs, according to this year's InformationWeek National IT Salary Survey.

chartAdding to some people's job consternation is the diminished status they perceive of the IT profession, especially when compared with where they stood five years ago. Then, IT unemployment was virtually nonexistent, hovering around 2%, several percentage points lower than the overall jobless rate. A half-decade later, IT employment basically mirrors that of the overall job market. The national unemployment rate in March stood at 5.7%, despite the creation of 308,000 jobs. IT joblessness averaged 5.5% for the 12 months ended in March.

At least one business-technology practitioner sees this as the result of the exaggerated business cycle the United States just went through. "Maybe there are too many people who call themselves IT professionals," says Joe Horton, systems engineer at FBL Financial Group Inc., a West Des Moines, Iowa, financial-services company with annual revenue of $647.4 million. Horton, 54, has been an IT pro for 32 years, including nearly 30 with FBL and its predecessor companies. He sees the ranks of IT as having been bloated in recent years by rampant hiring during the dot-com explosion and Y2K remediation. "It certainly has been more challenging to stay in this profession" in the last few years, he says.

There's that word again: challenging. It's a double-edged sword, as the Chinese proverb suggests. For one thing, there's too little space between trying to find the challenge in your job and the challenge of trying to find a job. There's also the challenge of trying to stay abreast of changing technologies, business strategies, and management philosophies, whether to advance in your current job or to get a job in which to advance. According to survey respondents, things in the business-technology profession are going better--higher salaries, better bonuses--than in recent years, but the threat of layoffs and retrenchment are constantly in mind.

Certainly, not all that's happening in the business-technology workplace is worrisome. Following years of meager growth, technology pros see bigger paychecks these days. During the two years following the dot-com bust--from 2001 to 2003--the median pay of IT staffers and managers rose only 5%. With the economy expanding, the median IT base salary this past year was $68,000 for staffers, 7.9% more than last year, and $90,000 for managers, 7.1% more than last year. Median total compensation, which includes bonuses and other direct cash payments received in the past 12 months, was $71,000 for staff and $97,000 for managers.

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