If you used the recession to broaden your expertise in networking and Internet technologies, then 2005 may be the time to step to the head of the class.
Networking and Internetworking skills will be among the highest talents in demand, fueled largely by enterprises' increasing interest in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), experts say.
"VoIP is one of the hottest technologies and gaining momentum. More companies are entertaining how they can utilize VoIP, especially to cut (networking) costs," says Dave Minutella, vice president of educational services for Philadelphia-based The Training Camp.
As they do so, they need IT professionals with applied experience in IP technologies, especially convergence. "The demand is creating opportunities in the job market," Minutella says.
That echoes the findings in a recent report by Foote Partners of New Canaan, Conn. Pay for people with applied networking skills rose 6% during the past year, mostly due to surging interesting among enterprises in VoIP. In addition, pay for unified messaging/groupware positions is about 4.5% higher than a year ago.
And in a surprising development, Foote Partners LLC reports that pay for skills relating to programming languages and applications development rose 4% in 2004, after several years of decline. The figures come from Foote Partners' 2005 Hot Technical Skills and Certifications Pay Index, including information from 45,000 IT workers and 1,860 North American and European employers.
"Employers in the post-recession period are paranoid about losing good people and are starting to increase pay for several skills," says David Foote, the company's president.
Networking certifications are on the rise, especially the highly prized certifications in hardware for Cisco Systems. Minutella says more and more companies are seeking seasoned network administrators who can deal with complex quality-of-service issues.
"For that, you need to have at least a basic foundation in quality of service, if not a professional foundation (of certifications)," Minutella says.
Prof. John Smiley, a trainer and IT consultant in Philadelphia, says certification may be even more important to advancing your career now that companies can select from a deeper talent pool.
"I know from my experience when hiring people that if you see a resume with a certification from Microsoft, Sun or Cisco, it goes atop the pile," says Prof. John Smiley, a trainer and IT consultant in Philadelphia.
Obtaining a Cisco certification has long been considered a surefire way to advancing your IT career. Still, flagging economic conditions forced many enterprises to tighten the purse strings on IT training, says Foote. Until recently, that is.
"Companies are once again starting to pay for Cisco certifications. Not that they haven't in the past, but let's just say they're starting to realize these skills are important to their organizations," says Foote.
Authorized training companies issued 30% more Cisco Certified Internet Experts certificates -- "one of the best certifications you can have," says Foote -- while the number of Cisco Certified Enterprise Administrator certifications jumped 10% in 2004.
Despite some gains, however, worries persist that the IT job market continues to sputter. During the late 1990s, specializing in a particular platform or technology discipline usually paid off. Not so anymore, says Ron Milan, an independent IT consultant based in New Jersey.
"Now it's the reverse -- companies want people who can do it all. Just knowing Microsoft isn't enough -- they expect you to also know Novell, Cisco, SQL Server, Microsoft Access, Oracle. That's pretty tough on your career path," says Milan, a LAN administrator specializing in Windows.
Like other IT professionals, Milan has navigated the minefield of changing expectations. A networking expert with a concentration in Microsoft technologies, his job was outsourced last year. Nevertheless, Milan wasn't worried. He believed his background was diverse enough to qualify him for many consulting gigs.
"Then I'd see four of five (required skills) that I'm not qualified for," he says. "Even headhunters have called me and said, 'Here's a list of required skills that are mandatory. But if you know these four or five other skills, that would be a bonus,'" says Milan.
Indeed, being a specialist often requires you to expand knowledge of other areas of IT, says Foote. Programmers need to learn more about the nuances of networking, especially as they write collaborative applications across networks. Likewise, database administrators often must collaborate with storage administrators and applications development on architectural design.
Demand for higher degrees of specificity influences hiring and skills pay, and tends to complicate matters for out-of-work IT professionals, says Foote. "It's so difficult, if you're not working or have been out of work a while, to jump back in and do the same the same job you used to do because it probably requires you to have more skills, including business skills."
Aside from renewed interest in networking professionals, application development also appears to be experiencing an uptick. Following several years of disappointing results from outsourcing applications, Foote says more organizations are bringing software development in house, particularly with regard to Web services and other collaborative programs. That spells good news in 2005 for code-writers.
"There's been some real growth, after having lost a lot of value, in rapid application development and extreme programming," says Foote.
Using these highly collaborative techniques, programmers work closely with customers and end users to create applications on the fly. The goal is to radically reduce the cycle time on developing new software.
Storage area networks are a "sleeper technology" that IT professionals should watch closely, says Minutello. By 2006, he predicts more IT professionals will begin adding storage skills to their arsenal, much the way that information security garnered interest several years back.
Milan, the New Jersey-based IT consultant, says it is important for IT professionals to constantly acquire new knowledge, especially if they aren't working. Along with rounding out your technical base, it prepares you for unexpected questions in job interviews.
Says Milan: "Always go in with an open mind and let them know that you're willing to take on extra skills, even if you're not an expert in it."