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Don't be left behind!

December 23, 1999
Web posted at: 10:23 a.m. EST (1523 GMT)

by Steve Alexander


(IDG) -- These are boom times in IT, but not for everybody. Some workers whose skills are not up-to-date are in danger of being left behind as the IT world continues to evolve.

One way to measure whether your skills and area of specialty are no longer on the rise is to look at the percent raises for the field.

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Although any raise can be considered good, raises below 5 percent represent only a tiny premium above the rate of inflation, says Holly Thomas, a senior consultant at the Wilson Group, a Maynard, Mass., company that designs compensation plans and reward systems for IT companies.

"Five percent is kind of a normal raise these days. If you've got a hot skill you're probably getting 8 to 15 percent," Thomas says. "But anybody who is getting under 5 percent is on the on low side, because salary ranges move up about 3 percent a year just due to labor-rate inflation. A person with a 5 percent raise really is getting a 2 percent merit increase. In other words, he or she is just ahead of the market."

An annual IT salary survey by RHI Consulting, in Menlo Park, Calif., shows several areas in which IT professionals are getting raises below 5 percent. They include application developers, tier-one help desk personnel, telecommunications managers, Internet and e-mail security administrators, IT operations shift supervisors, Microsoft Exchange developers, and software development product support personnel.

Those raises that are under 5 percent contrast sharply with the raises given for hot skills, according to the RHI survey. Job titles with hot skills -- and salary increases greater than 10 percent -- include application development programmer analyst, tier-three help desk personnel, Lotus Notes developers, and Internet and e-mail electronic-commerce specialists.

Why some fall behind

Thomas says that telecom especially seems to be falling behind in salary increases "because there is more of a demand for expertise in areas such as operating systems, databases, the Internet, and language skills like C++. So IT is not having to pay as much to keep people for areas such as telecom."

Not all help desk jobs get small raises. People in tier-two and tier-three help desk jobs fare better. But Thomas says people should not assume that all help desk people will get better increases as they gain experience.

"You don't always find someone with a strong computer science background on a help desk, so some might not ever move on to a better job. Hence, the pay raises in that job tend to be low," Thomas says.

Another reason for lower raises in some jobs is that the work requires less technical expertise than the job title may suggest, says Dino Grigorakakis, Mid-Atlantic regional manager at RHI Consulting, in Wilmington, Del. For example, a systems administrator with a limited knowledge of Internet security issues might be called a security administrator, but "is not necessarily going to be getting huge promotions or raises," Grigorakakis says.

Some experts believe that age may be a factor in getting lower IT raises. They say IT professionals who are 50 or older have a harder time getting a job, and are therefore less likely to land one that gets attractive raises.

"We live in a culture given over to having Hollywood youth and athleticism. A lot of IS professionals over 50 do not get good jobs because they are not offered those jobs," says Jim Otis, an IT recruiter at Individual Employment Services, in Dover, N.H. "It makes sense on paper for IT not to do that, because there's a shortage of people. But we run into problems with age even in IT."

The Wilson Group's Thomas concurs. "Companies are looking for energetic IT people who will work late hours and have complete dedication to the job. Typically, that's a younger person, so you tend to find younger people in those jobs."

Counting on current skills

But others believe that the real issue is skills, and that competent IT professionals with the right skills will fare well in the salary increase game, regardless of their age.

"Age is not a detrimental factor," says Daniel Hines, the Virginia-Washington, D.C. area manager at New York-based staffing company Pencom Systems. "As a matter of fact, most managers are getting a little tired of the immaturity of the younger engineers and welcome a mature person to their group."

For example, the next set of IT professionals to be hit by lower pay may be Cobol programmers, who are likely to be less in demand once year-2000 projects are complete.

"Pay is still up there for Cobol programmers, but if I were them I'd move out of that area. I would have started to look already," Thomas says.

"I have heard that more and more contractors with Cobol skills are being released back to their contracting agencies as Y2K things are starting to wrap up," says Dave Pingel, senior technical staffing specialist at American Century Investments, in Kansas City, Mo. "But there are so many legacy systems written a long time ago with Cobol. If your company uses them, then Cobol skills will continue to be important."

Issues such as age and education don't matter if you have the right skills, says David Russo, outgoing chair of the Human Resource Technology Management Committee at the Society for Human Resource Management, in Alexandria, Va. Russo is also vice president of human resources at SAS Institute, in Cary, N.C.

"If your technology toolkit is in demand, you are going to do well," Russo says.

That makes sense to Anne Kelso Lyden, a senior technical recruiter at AXC Interactive, a Seattle company that creates e-commerce Web sites.

"My mom is a software developer, primarily in C++, and she's 53. She doesn't seem to have too much difficulty finding something to do," Lyden says.

Thomas says that having the right skills will get you a job and will determine whether you will get those healthy salary increases, no matter what your age.

"If a person is older and still fits the skills profile, I can't imagine he or she would be at a disadvantage," Thomas says.

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