November 10, 2008, 4:02 PM — It's not easy for IT professionals to make a wholesale switch to a different technical discipline to reap the benefits of a hot skills market -- say, moving from a job as a systems administrator to a Java developer. "It's very difficult, because those two things just don't go together," says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology.
But that's not to say it can't be done, say Spencer Lee and other IT labor experts. For example, a systems or network administrator could take online or classroom courses to hone his Web development and systems life-cycle management know-how.
"If you can go to a supervisor and say, 'I'd like to move into a Web development role. I've learned some PHP, AJAX and other skills,' employers are interested in hearing from people who have shown that type of initiative," says Spencer Lee.
In fact, Web-related skills were among those garnering higher-than-average pay raises in this year's salary survey. Other hot skills included security and data management. (Read about other hot skills for 2008.)
Given current cost constraints, most employers have fewer resources available than they once did to retrain IT workers in different technical fields, says David Van De Voort, an IT workforce specialist at Mercer.
Still, there are opportunities for go-getters who are interested in reinventing themselves for potentially higher-paying roles. For instance, IT staffers who work for the city of Suffolk, Va., can pursue three technical certifications of their choice each year and receive 75% reimbursement "with no questions asked," says Tisa Knight-Chandler, a network coordinator there. Knight-Chandler has taken advantage of the program this year by upgrading her Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer 2000 certification to an MCSE 2003. She's also pursuing a master's degree in information systems.
Of course, providing IT staffers with training opportunities can be a double-edged sword for employers. On the plus side, a well-rounded technical staff with enhanced knowledge in various disciplines can provide better support. They can also provide IT managers with a deeper bench if an IT specialist goes out sick or has to be temporarily reassigned to another area.
On the other hand, as IT workers become more knowledgeable, they also become more marketable.
Until recently, Tim Watkins was an application support supervisor at Dantom Systems Inc., a Wixom, Mich.-based provider of services to the credit and collection industry. Through the company's generous training program, Watkins took courses to bolster his supervisory, project management and VMware skills. In addition, Dantom reimbursed him for part of his tuition for an MBA from nearby Walsh College.
But Watkins says he was disappointed when he received a 3% raise earlier this year, particularly after he felt he'd gone above and beyond his job responsibilities by creating, documenting and testing a disaster recovery plan for the company's customer data collection system.
"I understand the national averages on IT pay, but that goes to the economics of companies," says Watkins. "Most companies are downsizing, but [Dantom Systems] is thriving right now. They're having their best year ever."
Watkins says he was recently contacted through one of his LinkedIn connections about an opportunity to become a senior systems analyst at a Detroit-area law firm. After interviewing for the position and receiving an offer, he decided to take the job, since it included a 20% salary increase and good benefits, including profit sharing after two years of employment.