As IT picks up the pace, can tech workers keep up?

Salaries are up, but so is the pressure as employees hustle to keep skills current

There's good news and bad news on the salary front for IT professionals this year. With many businesses enjoying renewed growth following an extended period of economic gloom, IT workers saw another year of modest salary increases, and they reported significantly fewer pay cuts, hiring freezes and layoffs.

That's the good news.

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The bad news is that tech professionals are working hard for every penny they bring home -- so hard that in many cases the extra workload outweighs the small boost in pay.

For the second year in a row, salaries and total compensation for IT professionals have inched up. According to Computerworld's Salary Survey 2012, average salaries increased 2.1 percent this year, and average total compensation rose by 1.8 percent. In all, 56 percent of the 4,337 respondents to our survey reported an increase in their base salary this year, while only 9 percent reported a decrease.

Hiring is also up, with 87 percent of hiring managers who responded to the survey saying that they expect IT staff head count to increase in the next 12 months or remain the same. Only 25 percent of the total respondents reported hiring freezes, compared with 39 percent last year. And other negative indicators, such as salary freezes, budget cuts and layoffs, are all in retreat.

IT, it seems, is finally on the road to recovery. Workers even seem to feel better about the economy: Only 19 percent listed it as a challenge in the latest survey, compared to 28 percent the prior year.

Running, but not catching up

However, a closer look reveals IT professionals struggling to accept the fact that they might never regain the salary ground lost during the downturn and grappling with heavy workloads, added responsibilities and demands to learn new skills.

Mark Labby, for one, said he's happy to report a 2 percent pay increase after years of a salary freeze and a decision by his employer, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, to stop paying for on-call time, which resulted in a 5 percent reduction in his compensation. The PHEAA is now anticipating "astronomical" growth, says the senior database administrator, and it has even posted new job openings.

Though Labby says he feels fairly compensated, he can't help noting the gap between the recent pay boost and the earlier cut, particularly since the modest raise is more than offset by the rising cost of health benefits.

Survey respondents echo Labby's concerns: Only 20 percent said that they believe their salary is keeping pace with business growth and demands, and 71 percent said that they have either stayed flat or lost ground financially in the past two years.

"Technology professionals are being asked to do more for less," says Tom Silver, senior vice president for North America at job search site Dice.com. While demand for IT workers is high -- with an unemployment rate of just 3.8 percent in this sector compared with the national average of 8.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- continued economic uncertainty is keeping the brakes on salaries. "Employers have begrudgingly increased salaries, but tech pros want more," Silver says.

Some IT workers worry that they will be left behind compensation-wise and skills-wise -- and even energy-wise, as they tackle what appears to be a permanently increased workload.

"My to-do list keeps getting longer, though I'm working extended hours to try to catch up," says "Steve," the director of technology at a small manufacturer in the South. As on-hold projects are approved, he fears that "one day someone will look at all I have to do and think I'm not getting enough done." Despite corporate growth, his salary remains flat. "But I've yet to find another company that will pay me more -- and yes, I've been looking," he admits.

"Robert," a senior analyst at a big insurance company in central Illinois, also feels behind the eight ball. After two years of a hiring freeze, workers' responsibilities have grown much more than their salaries, he reports. Now, as Robert and his colleagues are being asked to shoulder new duties to support the company's growth initiatives, new hires are being offered better compensation than veteran workers.

"I'm making good money, but the five- and 10-year employees are making about the same as the 20- and 25-year employees," he says. Meanwhile, the pressure seems to mount. "Soon, analysts will need to be available seven-by-twenty-four," he says.

Just over half (51 percent) of our survey respondents said they had been given an increased workload in the past 12 months, and 68 percent said that they anticipated additional workloads and responsibilities in the next 12 months. Meanwhile, 85 percent said that they have felt more pressure over the past year to increase productivity or take on new tasks, and of that group, 90 percent said their salary had not been adjusted to reflect the added work. No wonder 51 percent of the respondents reported feeling underpaid based on their role and responsibility.

Working hard for the money

But even a pay increase doesn't always relieve the pressure.

Just ask "Raul," a systems engineer. Last year, his employer, a U.S. telecom giant, offered him a choice of a demotion or a layoff after 12 years of service. He was fortunate, because he had two job offers from other companies. He accepted one of them, and now he's earning a higher salary at a small but fast-growing wireless communications company.

But the bar has been raised: Raul now needs to learn new skills, and he has switched from an internal support role to a customer-facing one. "That switch alone was like going from no pressure to constant high pressure accompanied by random periods of super-high pressure," he says. "The company was willing to take a chance on a young engineer, and for that, I will be forever grateful. I have been working feverishly to increase my productivity and learn many new technologies."

Looking ahead

Clearly, pay is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to IT professionals' overall job satisfaction. While 66 percent of respondents said they're satisfied or very satisfied with their total compensation, only 29 percent said they believe that a career in IT and the profession's earning potential are as promising today as they were five years ago.

"For the most part, technology professionals feel pretty good about their career prospects, if they have the skills that employers are looking for," Silver says.

That said, "I don't think it ever will be like it was before the recession," says Robert, the insurance company senior analyst. "We now have a global market for IT services, and that's causing our salaries to stabilize."

This story, "As IT picks up the pace, can tech workers keep up?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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