As more networking jobs are outsourced either to domestic or overseas specialists, following the right career track and developing the right skill sets can mean the difference between a fast-tracked career and a pink slip.
"The overall model is to continue outsourcing," said Bobby Cameron, vice president at Forrester Research. He said that regardless of industry or the area of the enterprise, if work does not require intimate knowledge of the business, it is a candidate for sending out of house.
There are a few companies with a culture of keeping processes in-house, Cameron said, but these days they are the exception rather than the rule. In a survey conducted by Forrester last year, only 46% of enterprises said that they would not be using offshore IT services within the next year.
In the networking field, network architecture jobs are the most likely to stay in-house. These design and strategy responsibilities of network architects require too much expertise and accountability to be trusted to anyone outside the company, according to Rusty Weston, work globalization expert and founder of MyGlobalCareer.com.
"Everything else can be outsourced," Weston wrote in an email. There is still a strong need for skilled, certified installation professionals on-site, but often these jobs can be done by third-party service providers, he said.
These providers have grown more aggressive with their offerings, leveraging acquisitions and partnerships to offer both on-site and off-site services.
"If basic network management tasks and on-site installation can be done by third-party providers," Weston said, "what are the keys to staying invaluable?"
Ed Tittel, a training and certification expert and author, said networking pros should develop skills in areas that require situational or contextual awareness.
Networking pros should develop soft skills. Anyone can learn how to troubleshoot technical problems. It is more difficult to develop the institutional knowledge required to navigate the corporate political hierarchies in order to propose a budget or act as intermediary between the local warehouse and IT to make sure everyone is on the same page with project requirements.
"What usually gets outsourced is the kind of function any competent IT professional can do," Tittel said, "whether they work at your company … or in India."
Companies are also unlikely to outsource core competencies in IT that they leverage for a competitive advantage. Tittel described these competencies as a company's "crown jewels." If network architecture uniquely boosts productivity or responsiveness in ways competitors can't duplicate, a company will keep that knowledge in-house.
These differentiators vary wildly by industry and from company to company. Some companies may see network services as just a commodity, leaving no one safe.
Tittel said workers who want to thrive need to stand out by tackling tough problems and developing a mentality that seeks out challenges. A track record of accomplishment can be more valuable than a worker's skill set or certification history.
"People who just want to punch a clock ... are the ones typically in danger," he said.
The toughest problems in most enterprises today, however, often go beyond pure configuration or implementation concerns, which is why Tittel encourages a broad range of education.
"I'm a great believer that professionals should cultivate both hard skills and soft skills," he said. Workers should look into non-technical training, including ToastMasters' leadership classes and project management certification. An MBA could also boost career potential.
"The problem with IT is you have to do some of both [soft skills/hard skills]," Tittel said. "You have to deal with the tools and technologies you work with every day … and then you have also to look at the business and industry objectives."
And what to do if you do find yourself replaced by outsourced labor?
"Any break in your career is an opportunity to retool," Tittel said. Even for those who cannot afford to go back to school full-time should consider taking evening or weekend classes as they work to get their careers back on track.