Skills beat out certifications in networking job market, study finds

The premium pay in IT is going to those with soft skills, but some specialized certifications still command respect.

Skills continue to command higher salaries for IT workers than certifications do, but some specific networking certifications have bucked the trend.

In its 30th quarterly IT pay index, Foote Partners found that specialties such as networking security and wireless networking certifications attract premium salaries, but – overall -- IT shops are looking for more well-rounded networking pros. David Foote, co-founder and CEO of the Vero Beach, Fla.-based firm, said the push for more outward-facing IT, which requires more soft skills and often less specialized technical prowess, was driving the change in hiring and salary practices.

Overall, the market value of IT skills the survey tracked increased 6% over last year, while the corresponding value of the 164 certifications tracked was down 3%.

"If you look at the certification market, it's oriented toward deep-dive technology," Foote said. "The trend is a much broader view of who an IT person is." Larger percentages of the IT budget are being dedicated to customer-facing initiatives, he said, requiring a broad range of talents for successful execution.

"Companies are looking for industry experience, customer experience … and not so much technical stuff," Foote said. It's a trend that has hurt those first entering the field, where a few certifications are no longer enough to guarantee a position. Experience is now mandatory, he said, but it can be demonstrated in a number of ways, from summer jobs to showing work experience from a related field.

Despite the call for generalist IT professionals, Foote said, there are still several niche, "new IT" skills that command a premium, particularly in the networking field.

"If you look at growth, virtualization has been fantastic for networking people," Foote said. Certifications and experience in storage, network security, wireless network management, RFID, and IP telephony are hot right now, he said, and these are the cutting-edge fields where the deep-dive approach is still very much needed.

Network security management and wireless network management both saw market value growth between 20% and 25% over the six months preceding April 2008.

"With the exception of the wireless stuff, a lot of it is inward, technical work," Foote said.

The overall trend in IT, including networking jobs, favors the adaptable and flexible, he said, even if that means sacrificing more specialized knowledge.

"The skills market has expanded over the years outside of certification," Foote said. "Skills … have been on the rise."

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