Is your IT job worth keeping?

Here's how to know when to jump ship -- and what to do if you're thrown overboard

This past week, I had a chance to interview several former students of mine who have gone from the classroom to the trenches, building meaningful careers in IT over the past decade. Prior to the recent recession, they were working normal hours, spending more time with their family, and taking home worthwhile salaries. Today, they still have their jobs, but their hours have doubled, their salaries have been cut in half, and their families have trouble remembering their names.

One of these IT pros, Wayne, has decided to make a life adjustment. He currently works for one of the largest private banking organizations in New York, serving as part of a team that supports 30,000 servers. Just before my visit, Wayne was on call on Saturday, working from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. the following morning. He says that is the new normal. When I asked if he gets paid overtime, he explained that he is salaried with no perks for extra work, not even a pat on the back. He's done and put his two-week notice in already.

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You might think Wayne is foolish, considering the current economy, but he didn't just jump ship without having somewhere to go. He took his time, spruced up his résumé, and started looking quietly. He found an opportunity that is closer to home, involves only 200 servers, and puts him completely in charge. The only downside? A drop in pay.

"It's worth it," Wayne says. "My family needs to come first. I have a wife and children that never see me. I'm stressed out all the time, missing sleep and damaging my own health. And for what? For a company that doesn't care about me and will let me go in a heartbeat. I feel the economy has stabilized enough in our industry and I have a strong enough résumé that I can jump ship and survive with a new company or several new companies if need be." I'm nervous for him but also pleased to see he has his priorities.

Making the transition to new IT employment

My other former students aren't as confident in the economy just yet. One is working for the same company doing the same hours, and he doesn't plan to make any changes. He's happy to have a job and feels if he can make it through the cuts in his department, which apparently come monthly, sometimes weekly, he'll see stability at some point.

It's hard to know what to tell folks who ask me about the IT economy at this point. I read the salary surveys; they seem promising, but I also hear of many IT pros looking for work for years without results. For some, it's not that they have jumped ship; they've been thrown overboard.

My recommendation in both cases is simple:

Put together a modest nest egg that will help you last through the months you may not have work should you be laid off. You'll have unemployment to fall back on, but it likely won't cover your expenses. If you can supplement with your own savings, that would help relieve the stress of not finding employment fast.

Before going from one bad job to another, map out (with your family, if that applies) your priorities. Do you prefer to work from home or partially work from home? Would you like to make sure you're home on the weekends, or is on-call weekend work not such a big deal? Give serious thought to your dream schedule and circumstances and make sure you're interviewing the job just as much as the job is interviewing you.

Try to muster up that old-school admin confidence and strength that we had in days of yore. There was a time where an IT admin made six figures and ruled their world. Those days are gone, but a modicum of confidence leads to a better interview. Remember, I said confidence, not arrogance. That just puts people off. It's an employer's market for sure. There is a bloat of IT admins willing to do the job for longer hours and less pay. Make yourself worth their consideration by being confident that you will add value to their organization.

In addition, consider using the time to learn technologies that you haven't had a chance to work with before. Virtualization, Exchange, and SharePoint are all good choices. I'm a big fan of certification as well. It used to be anyone could earn a certification, so certifications lost their value. But the balance has shifted, and these kinds of added credentials can make you more employable.

For those who are still employed, don't jump ship until you have a place to jump to. If you happen to be thrown overboard, consider your options carefully before getting into another slave ship.

This article, "Is your IT job worth keeping?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in Windows at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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