Networking, messaging among IT skills in highest demand at SMBs

A new study shows certain IT skills are in greater demand, although non-techie "soft skills" are also a must these days.

A new study of North American and European firms shows employers are putting more value on retaining employees

and are willing to pay more money to keep them.

Foote Partners LLC, a New Canaan, Conn.-based research firm, surveyed 45,000 IT workers at more than 1,800 firms. Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) comprised more than half of the pool.

Foote's data shows that skills associated with networking, messaging, groupware and applications development have made a turnaround over the past six months. Networking pay has jumped 6% in the past year, messaging and groupware skills have shown a 4.5% increase, and application development and programming language skills, which suffered up to 12% declines one year ago, are up nearly 4%.

David Foote, president and chief research officer, credits this reversal of fortune to several factors, including the mending economy, failures in offshore outsourcing, increased hiring at IT services firms and a desire to retain employees who've stuck it out during the lean years.

"They've all conspired to drive up pay," Foote said. "Companies that have been through offshore outsourcing realize that they need to keep employees who know where the landmines are and how to get a project done." Small IT services firms have capitalized on increasing security issues and compliance needs, Foote added, and have been hiring techies with niche skills in those areas -- and paying top dollar.

One of the "hot skills" to watch is wireless skills. Reynaldo Gil, chairman and CEO of Commendo Software Inc., in Fremont, Calif., is looking for those skills to expand his business, which currently has less than a dozen employees. Commendo makes device software (for handhelds, mobile phones) that can handle heavy, Web-based processing for business.

"I need people with wireless skills, microchip design techniques, and people who know how to support pilot customers," Gil said. "We're seeing a lot of good talent coming our way."

Soft skills matter

But while such specific technical skills are reestablishing their marketability, SMBs are also demanding that employees have softer skills to match.

The Foote study found that analytical skills, project and business management skills, communication, team building and an understanding of how applications match (or mismatch) business needs are most in demand.

"These skills are much bigger and more mandatory at SMBs," Foote said. "They probably won't even look at you if you don't have them."

Soft skills are premium skills for B. Lee Jones, CIO of Stratex Networks Inc., a wireless broadband equipment company in San Jose, Calif. In his 26-person IT department, non-tech skills are a must.

"I always have looked for problem solvers rather than experts and will continue to do so," he said, adding that his people have to cover too many areas and wear too many hats to be narrowly focused on any one discipline.

"I can teach the tech skills over time, but I can't teach attitude," Jones said.

Foote said that the attitude and the people skills are much more important today for IT workers.

"Today 80% of it is art and not science," he said. "There are few purely IT people left."

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