The IT certs that no longer pay extra -- and the new skills that do

Overall employment in tech is improving, but the certs you could once count on for a job or extra pay are losing their special value

Premium pay for those hard-earned IT certifications continues to decline, despite an overall surge in high-tech employment. The latest quarterly survey by Foote Partners found that pay premiums (not overall pay) declined by 1.2 percent in the last three months of 2011. Although that doesn't sound like much, the loss is part of a long-term trend, as it was the sixth straight quarter in which premium pay declined. In fact, premiums have lost value in 20 of the last 21 quarters, according to Foote Partners, which surveys 524 IT skills and certifications.

Of those, only one category of certifications -- architecture/project management/process certifications -- grew in overall market value; it rose by nearly 2 percent. And other data from Foote shows that businesses no longer value what are increasingly considered standard skills, and instead are putting their money both into a new set of emerging specialties and into hybrid technology/business roles.

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The good news is clear in the overall tech employment picture: A year-end report by the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) put the IT unemployment rate for 2011 at 3.7 percent, down from 5.3 percent in 2010. By comparison, in December, the unemployment rate for the overall economy was 8.5 percent.

An estimated 83,000 IT jobs were created in 2011, according to the Current Population Survey data, based on monthly surveys of U.S. households. A different measure, that of job listings on Dice.com, the largest tech job board, showed an increase of 11 percent in January versus a year earlier. At the beginning of the month, Dice listed 75,404 jobs, compared to 68,206 a year ago.

The hidden job growth is in hybrid business/tech roles
That IT job growth may in fact be understated in such statistics, thanks to a key trend that points to where IT opportunities are emerging for career and pay growth: so-called hybrid jobs, says David Foote, CEO of Foote Partners. Because those hybrid jobs are scattered across different departments and lines of business, counting them is much more difficult than it was when nearly all IT jobs were found in the IT department.

Foote explains the hybrid role: "The broader trend continues to be employers hiring hybrid IT-business professionals with combinations of both business and technology knowledge, experience, and skill sets, unlike those found in traditional IT organizations. ... Clearly there is demand for a mix of specific technical skills along with business and communications skills."

"Pure-play [tech] jobs are on the decline," concurs Bill Reynolds, a partner at Foote. Where once the majority of tech jobs were in technology companies, now many organizations whose business is not directly related to tech have many openings that require different skills, he says.

The trend towards broader skill sets is not new. Historically, an IT pro might have been successful if he or she was certified in a specific application from a specific vendor, such as Microsoft, Cisco, or Novell. But as technology became less proprietary, people needed to certify in areas that encompassed more than one vendor, such as security. Now comes the next leap, which Foote says is learning about how technology is deployed in areas like finance, marketing, and accounting. IT employees are now embedded in departments and work groups, and when they are, they need to be able to speak about technical subjects to nontechnical people, he says.

The IT skills that are losing value -- and the ones gaining value
That increased demand for hybrid roles doesn't mean that specific technical skills aren't also valued. It's just that the ones that businesses value -- and are willing to pay more for -- are changing.

The IT labor market is very complex, and generalizing from a set of numbers can be misleading. But Foote's analysis does indicate that some once-popular skill sets are losing some of their value to employers. What some of these skills have in common is that they are specialties that are now being thought of as legacies, while other areas have shifted into a maintenance mode as new technologies demand business attention and promise new business advantage. That's not to say that all certs involving old-school technologies are hopelessly out of fashion. Some are still in high demand and pay accordingly.

In the last quarter of 2011, certified skills that lost 15 percent or more in market value included Oracle/Siebel 7.7 certified consultant, Microsoft certified database administrator, and IBM certified specialist in storage networking solutions. There was a similar decline in narrow noncertified skills sets, including SAP Business One, SAP Web application server, and ColdFusion/ColdFusion MX, according to Foote's survey.

So which skills are becoming more valuable, gaining the pay premiums IT pros seek? Certified skills that jumped by 15 percent or more included EC-Council certified security analyst, certified wireless network administrator, CompTIA Server+, and HP accredited platform specialist. (Notice how these are broader skills sets than those losing value?) Noncertified skills that gained the same amount of market value included a variety of application development skills, including Groovy, Java, Drupal, and Ruby -- all languages used in hot areas such as cloud, mobile, and Web applications. Messaging-oriented middleware also gained, as did e-commerce skills like JavaScript, Joomla, and VBScript.

On Dice.com, the fastest growing skill sets included those related to Java, iPhone, Android, cloud, e-commerce, and mobile applications, although Oracle database and the combined category of C, C++, and C# software development accounted for the lion's share of actual listings by skill.

The key is to evolve your skills with the demand
IT, like other parts of the labor market, is evolving. As employers look for tech hands with broader skills and knowledge of business, as well as those skilled in emerging technology areas, many of the old skill sets are become less desirable, even though overall IT demand is moving in the right direction.

"The biggest mistake job seekers make is looking at what they have instead of what the employer is looking for," Foote says.

It is, of course, easy to preach about staying current in your job skills, thinking differently, being business-oriented, and so on. All of that is really tough, particularly for older workers. But two years ago, no matter how you tried, jobs simply weren't there. Now they are. That's a hell of an improvement.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here (Add a comment) so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "The IT certs that no longer pay extra -- and the new skills that do," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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