IT professionals rake in bucks despite downturn

Given the slowing economy and gloomy job climate, you might think IT workers are getting hit hard in their paychecks. But the fact is that IT professionals (at least those who still have jobs) are doing remarkably well.

Overall annual growth in base pay is a healthy 9.6 percent for the 85 IT jobs in my company's just-released second-quarter salary and hot skills pay survey of 28,000 continuously tracked IT workers. That's much better than the general labor market nearly three times greater, by some estimates.

Network operations and network engineering professionals are doing the best, with increases of 15.8 percent and 13.8 percent, respectively, over the second quarter of last year. They're averaging about US$94,000 in base salary, $110,600 with bonuses. Business technologists, business applications developers and security professionals increased their base pay by about 12 percent and are averaging from $99,000 to $135,000 in base salary. Clearly, the demand for top-notch specialists to build and manage key pieces of the e-business technical infrastructure continues to outrun supply, and that's not going to change anytime soon.

Sure, the deflated dot-com balloon reversed the fortunes of workers in many Web-related jobs in the past year: Their pay grew a paltry 3.8 percent. And several widely publicized failures with big, expensive enterprise systems development projects made companies skittish, flattening pay for data warehousing, customer relationship management and systems engineering jobs.

But how bad can things really be when nearly half of all IT managers and staffers we surveyed earn more than $100,000 in base salary, and 70 percent exceed that in total cash compensation?

Life remains good for many IT workers. It's still a great career choice, despite all the layoffs. Here are a few factors driving growth in IT jobs.

-- Continued expansion of e-business application development.

-- An upsurge in outsourcing contracts and continued growth in enterprise-level IT projects, each requiring expert management.

-- Increased demand for wireless services and mobile computing capabilities.

-- Greater security risks associated with the first three factors.

Salaries for networking, internetworking and security are expected to increase in the next several quarters as more business is launched online, extranet security concerns grow and emerging technology markets, such as wireless, proliferate.

Recent budget cuts hit security professionals hard, but those cuts were only a temporary setback. As I mentioned in my July 9 column, these jobs are rapidly diversifying and expanding into hot new security niches. Security pros should see more hiring and solid pay increases in the next 12 to 24 months as companies wise up to the risks in scaling back security services.

The chronic shortage of skilled IT professionals will continue, fed by even more companies rewiring themselves to the Internet. This will keep pay levels elevated for many jobs, especially those requiring both technology and business-strategy skills.

New opportunities are opening up in the health care and biotechnology industries. Spurred by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, health care organizations will soon implement or reconfigure legacy systems to protect patient privacy. It'll be like Y2k all over again.

The bottom line: Expect more team- and proj-ect-focused pay during the economic downturn, as budgets undergo case-by-case scrutiny to focus resources on projects that bring tangible, near-term benefits. So, be patient and keep your chin up. Better days are ahead.

David Foote is president and chief research officer at Foote Partners LLC, a management consultancy and IT workforce research firm in New Canaan, Conn. Contact him at dfoote@footepartners.com.

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