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Big IT salaries aren't enough for stress, long hours

December 2, 1998
Web posted at: 2:00 PM EST

by Alice LaPlante

(IDG) -- When Chi Lin began looking for a new information technology position in which he could use his Oracle database administration skills, he was astonished by the low salaries he was offered, given what he'd been reading about worker demand and salary levels.

Of the 10 companies where Lin interviewed, he got one "outstanding" offer and three he considered respectable. But the rest were "surprisingly lowball," says Lin, who's now very happy with his job as database analyst at the Caesar's World casino in Las Vegas.

"I did some pretty exhaustive research and worked with several headhunting firms, but most companies were simply not willing" to go as high as he wanted, Lin says.

He says the low offers could have resulted from his lack of the necessary years of experience - despite "two solid years" of Oracle - or his adamance about location, wanting to live and work in Las Vegas.

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Or, Lin says, it could be that many companies out there have unrealistic expectations of what it takes to attract a qualified candidate. And though "I did receive the one excellent offer," he says, the experience was "an eye-opener."

Lin isn't alone in his dismay at the realities of the IT job market. The results of Computerworld's First Online Salary Satisfaction Survey are in, and it appears there are certainly a lot of unhappy campers out there.

To get a sense of just how IT professionals really feel about their paychecks, Computerworld posted a salary satisfaction survey on its Web site for approximately six weeks in September and October, and promoted the survey in print and online.

IT professionals came in droves, with more than 1,300 staffers and contractors participating.

And for the first time, Computerworld was able to compare IT professionals' opinions about their salaries, based on the different segments of the industry in which they work. This included user companies, vendor companies or consultancies and contracting firms. The differences and similarities in how representatives of each segment responded to various compensation issues were enlightening.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the widespread publicity about the lack of qualified IT workers - combined with the panicked efforts of U.S. employers to fill vacant job slots - a substantial percentage of IT professionals don't feel they are being adequately compensated.

In fairness, some respondents argued that so much publicity about the lack of high-tech talent and the desperate search for qualified IT help has led to misconceptions about the market itself.

"People really need to consider their own situations, how much experience they have, what kind of certification, what kind of industry they're working in," says Bonnie Helton, director of information technology at Johnson Smith LLP, a law firm in Indianapolis.

Climbing the ladder

Helton herself worked up through the ranks, from secretary to paralegal to network administrator and finally, to her current position. She knows she makes less than IT managers at other companies. But her response to that is pragmatic: She's aware she has no formal degree or other training in the field, a situation she believes other self-taught IT professionals should take into account when comparing their salaries with those of people with graduate degrees in computer science or other formal study.

The fact that Helton has steadily been granted higher salaries, as well as added recognition for her contribution to her company, is good news, she says. It has taken many nontechnology companies - and perhaps law firms in particular - this long to understand the significance of IT, she says. "So it's excellent news that more companies are finally acknowledging how important we are."

Part of the problem may be that although dollars are being forked over in fairly large quantities, the amount of labor - and responsibility - that goes with the typical IT job makes it seem to many like a poor deal.

"I make a huge contribution to my company, and I work anywhere from 45 to 60 hours a week," says a network analyst at a manufacturing company who prefers to remain anonymous. "Even if the 'average salary' numbers I'm seeing are $10,000 higher than reality, I'm still not being paid enough."

Lin believes there is a sharp division between salaries offered to IT workers with just one or two years of experience, and those quoted to professionals with more than five or six years.

"How many years you have under your belt matters quite a bit," Lin says. But he also says that many companies out there have unrealistic notions of the employment market. "They just don't understand that if they want to get good experienced people, they will have to pay a lot more," he says.

Living on the edge

The news is slightly better when it comes to getting the chance to work with new technology. Most are satisfied that they're getting their hands on enough of the latest gadgets (both hardware and software) to keep their skills fairly current.

Even better was the fact that employers are trying to make work environments more flexible to create more "life-friendly" workplaces.

And IT employees say they would take less cash in favor of a reduced workload or more flexibility about scheduling. Indeed, this has turned out to be the No. 1 hot button for IT workers, many of whom feel not so much underpaid as overworked and tied to a job that makes having an outside life difficult.

"There are a number of things I would accept in lieu of extra money. Some flexibility on my hours, for example. Or more vacation time - I only get two weeks," says Gina Sanfilippo, MIS manager at San Francisco-based public relations firm Blanc & Otis.

And in general, IT employees feel they have quite satisfactory relationships with their managers (statistically speaking, this was the brightest news the survey turned up). Regardless of what part of the IT industry they work in, approximately two-thirds of IT workers say they have good relationships with their bosses.

Training is key

Still, getting enough training remains on most IT employees' hot list. Even though many received hands-on exposure to new technologies, most would like to be put through courses of study - preferably those offering accreditation - that go beyond tinkering with a new product in their spare time.

For precisely those reasons Ryan Smith went job hunting last year. Smith was an experienced Novell networking consultant at a midsize Salt Lake City IT consulting firm. And he was increasingly dissatisfied that management failed to understand how critical it was that he keep his skills honed.

"I was pretty much expected to keep up with new technologies myself," Smith says. Now the IT manager at Fairbanks Capital Corp., also in Salt Lake City, Smith jumped when a client offered him what Smith calls "an offer I couldn't refuse." And the fact that he has much more generous training opportunities was key.

"It's critical for anyone in today's market," Smith says. He believes that IT employees would be willing either to forgo salary increases or sign contracts stipulating their agreement to stay for a certain period of time, if they will be guaranteed a certain amount of training.

Flexibility is also key. "Although I have a much higher salary in my current position, I joke that I still get $2.25 an hour, because I put in so much overtime," Smith says. "IT employees work hard for their money."

What are the lessons to be learned from this?

First, the media and recruiters need to be more careful when publishing average salaries for technology positions. Such compensation varies widely according to region, industry and experience of applicant, and headhunters and journalists must be wary of fueling unrealistic expectations.

Complacency means trouble

But employers shouldn't be complacent, either. There's a clear message being sent by the rank-and-file IT workers: If you can't up the salary ante, at the very least provide more bonuses based on performance, such as stock options or other one-time remuneration offers.

You also need to pay attention to your employees' desires to keep their skills current. That means offering training, training and more training. Otherwise, you're going to have a revolving door as your IT employees continue to search for better positions.

Perhaps most important, you can be more sympathetic toward the work/family balancing act of today's workers by providing options such as flexible scheduling, telecommuting or comp time. Most IT employees have emphasized that they work in a demanding, stressful profession that makes it difficult to separate work and home life. Most IT workers told Computerworld that typically they wear company-provided beepers after hours in case of emergency.

At a state transportation agency office in St. Louis, attrition due to overworked and underpaid IT workers became such a problem that management was forced to re-evaluate salaries. They had to raise many IT employees' compensation by more than of 35%, says a senior network analyst at the agency.

He's quite happy with his adjusted salary. But he says managers need to be aware that money isn't everything. "The stress can be very high," he says. "There are many ways that management can be more sensitive and retain good employees."

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