"IT professionals with the right technical skill set plus a foundational understanding of the business they work in will stand a much better chance in today's market," says Neill Hopkins, vice president of skills development at the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA).
Business initiatives such as enterprise mobility, datacentre consolidation and unified communications are driving demand for expertise in new technology areas and reinforcing the importance of mastering the fundamentals such as networking and security, industry watchers say.
"Web 2.0, .Net, Java, wireless -- skills in technologies that enable end users to engage and communicate with each other -- are hot," says Rich Milgram, CEO of online job portal Beyond.com.
"At the same time network and security skills are becoming more and more important, especially as companies expose more and more of their networks and data to the world."
Here we examine (in no particular order) the current most-sought-after skills and those destined to be in demand going forward.
End users expect to be able to work from anywhere anytime, so skills in wireless and mobility are being pushed to the top of many hiring managers' must-have lists.
"Now you need to be able to plan and troubleshoot radio interference and access point placement. Everyone wants to work from anywhere," says Bruce Meyer, director of network services at ProMedica Healthcare in Toledo, Ohio. "Standards will continue to evolve rapidly as everyone chases the Holy Grail of a wirelike experience. I'm not just looking for wireless skills; I'm looking for the ability to rapidly learn new things."
According to CompTIA, wireless skills in many areas -- 802.11, WiMAX and broadband -- will only become more appealing to companies in the next five years.
John Estes, vice president of strategic alliances at Robert Half Technology, adds that mobility goes beyond knowing wireless technologies. It also requires knowing about each device end users might start using to tap the network. "End users have mini multimedia computers in their hands now. Someone is going to have to be involved in decisions around which devices best suit the environment and application needs," Estes says.
No longer just a tool for systems administrators to tinker with in testing environments, virtualisation technology is the main component behind datacentre consolidation and disaster recovery initiatives.
"Virtualisation is a hot technology area, which means managers are looking for people with some savvy there," says Steve Clifford, field recruiting director at staffing agency TAC Worldwide. "Many companies have a lot of redundant servers, and they are trying to maximise resources and utilisation on every server on every site."
And while server virtualisation is the current hot technology, industry watchers expect storage, network and desktop virtualisation to continue to drive demand for expertise in this technology area. EMA Research Director Andi Mann says desktop virtualisation will show the strongest growth of any virtualisation technology during the next one to two years.
Security as a must-have skill is a no-brainer.
A CompTIA skills survey released in February had security listed as the No. 1 skill among three-quarters of the 3,578 IT hiring managers polled. Foote Partners reports that security skills accounted for 17% of base pay in the fourth quarter of 2007, and pay for network security management skills increased by more than 27% in 2007.
But going forward, IT professionals will need to be able to incorporate their security savvy into network, wireless, application, operating system and other IT areas to best compete.
"Firewall, data leak, compliance -- you name it and it's in demand for security," says CompTIA's Hopkins. "In the networking field, you need to also be an expert at security, but going forward skills around how to train staff and employees to be security-aware will have to be developed."
Networking expertise, which fell out of favour after the dot-com bust, is now back in demand and second only to security in terms of needed skills among the IT managers surveyed by CompTIA.
"Networking and infrastructure skills are back. Companies are not getting rid of data and they are doing more transactions online. With the growth and complexity of networks, there is a push for skills to design and manage such large-scale environments," says Beyond.com's Milgram.
Martin Webb, manager of data network operations for the Ministry of Labour and Citizens' Services in the province of British Columbia, says he is looking for people with practical experience in large enterprise IP-based networks, "both in terms of implementing services as well as operational support."
"Experience in wide-area networking is hard to come by, particularly as it applies to traditional carrier networking technologies such as T-1, frame relay, ISDN and multiplexing," Webb explains. "Today's technical staff also need to have basic business analysis skills with an understanding of financial management."
For John Tuman, director of network services at WakeMed Health & Hospitals in Raleigh, N.C., finding VoIP skills is a challenge. "There is a lot of talent available with the traditional PBX, far less that have practical VoIP experience," he says.
Virginia Tech's Jones agrees. He says expertise in VoIP will only be more in demand as time goes on.
"VoIP, IPv6, and other emerging technologies will be driven by new applications and user requirements. IT staffers as always will have to learn these new things while maintaining the older technologies and services," Jones says.
5. Application delivery
Often as networks become more complex and sophisticated, they also get distributed over various remote locations and branch offices -- which Gartner says is driving the need for expertise in the area of application delivery.
Application delivery networks, according to Gartner, are required if companies want to deploy modern browser-based applications and emerging Web services applications. This network overlay responsible for application delivery will demand skills that cross storage, security, network and application development disciplines. Knowledge of application optimisation techniques such as protocol offload, caching, application firewalls and others would be required of application delivery experts on staff.
"IT departments that add these positions will see smoother application development and deployment, increased user satisfaction and lower costs," says Joe Skorupa, research vice president at Gartner.
6. Web 2.0
Companies looking to implement Web 2.0 technologies want to see IT professionals with skills in areas such as AJAX, .Net and XML. These technologies require updated application development skills because they provide a more interactive experience, which could cause bandwidth or performance issues if not executed properly.
"For application development tools, AJAX, .Net, WebSphere and others have replaced and are replacing all the early-generation stuff like CGI, Visual Interdev and HTML/DHTML," says David Foote, CEO and chief research officer at Foote Partners.
7. IT business analysis
Being able to gauge the business relevance of technology decisions is critical for all high-tech hires, industry watchers and IT managers agree.
Arun DeSouza, a director of strategic planning and security at Inergy Automotive Systems, says skills around managing IT with finance in mind are in demand at his company.
"Ultimately, all technology investments and operational expenditures are about enabling the business and adding to the bottom line," he says. "IT managers need to be able to help align with the business, manage the financial portfolio and articulate the benefits in a language that the business can understand."
IT managers expect their employees not only to have a comprehensive understanding of the business they support but also to keep that knowledge current.
"The more senior a technical staffer gets, the more business aware they need to be," says John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
8. Database management
Database management skills are growing in importance, according to several industry sources.
Robert Half Technology found database management to be considered an in-demand skill among 66% of 1,400 CIOs it polled. Foote Partners reported that median pay for database skills increased by 10% over the last two years, with Oracle database skills specifically seeing a 24% spike in pay over the previous 12 months.
"Simply speaking, it is cheaper now to store data so more companies are keeping more data on large-scale disk drives, because in the online world content is king," Beyond.com's Milgram says. "The more content you have the bigger you are, and back-end SQL, MySQL and Oracle skills are in demand to ensure companies are successful at such large-scale data management."
9. Business intelligence/data mining
In a similar vein as data management, business intelligence and data mining skills are growing in importance to enterprise companies as analysing the data stored can directly impact a business' bottom line.
"Customers have spent so much money on gathering their data and putting it in data warehouses that they are now looking for ways to generate revenue from the data or from the knowledge contained within it," says TAC Worldwide's Clifford. "It's important that IT professionals have these skills -- one part business intelligence and one part data mining -- but also that they can apply them in such a way that is suitable to their business.
According to Foote Partners, pay for business intelligence grew by more than 22% in 2007.
10. The X factor
The trend is for IT professionals to emerge from being specialists in one technology area to being team members with broad knowledge of the environment. As networks and systems grow more sophisticated and intertwined with each other and the business, IT staff is expected to be well-versed in many areas and able to apply that know-how to the business at hand.
"I am seeing a need for IT staff to have a more holistic view when designing, integrating and troubleshooting. In the past, skill sets could be quite focused because there were better-defined lines of demarcation between systems; the trend continues to move to more interdependent and intertwined systems," says WakeMed Health & Hospitals' Tuman. "Now we need folks to understand how multiple systems interoperate, and when troubleshooting, have the ability to associate symptoms that surface in other areas back to the source."