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As the networking field changes, soft skills are essential

Networking jobs increasingly require soft skills including business experience and stronger interpersonal skills, as well as certifications.

For those entering the networking field, changing workforce demands and expectations can leave a disconnect between job seekers and their goals. The IT world is a much different place than it was a decade ago: Certifications are not a guaranteed foot in the door, former breadwinning skill sets have been commoditized, and even the motivations for entering the field have changed drastically.

Steven Ostrowski, director of communications for the Computing Technology Industry Association, said there is a disconnect in the marketplace: Employees claim a shortage of good jobs, while employers claim a shortage of workers.  

"There are jobs out there for the people who have a combination of technical skills, business skills and communication skills," Ostrowski said. But IT pros have not always been adept at acquiring business skills and communication skills -- dubbed "soft skills" by some -- which is hurting some job seekers even at entry-level networking jobs like the help desk.

More competition across fields

Another factor is that in a tech-centric economy, there are more fields competing for the most qualified candidates, and networking jobs don't have the same popular appeal as other career paths.

"IT's not as popular as it once was," said Kate Stephensen, an account manager for KForce, a professional staffing service that focuses on technology jobs. "They want to go into a more glamorous space. Video games is something I hear a lot."

Consequently, many candidates fall into a network career almost by accident as they advance from temporary or entry-level jobs, crowding the field with entry-level-trained employees unable to advance without further development, Stephensen said.

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"There are a million [networking pros], but they're just not good," she said. "I will get inundated with resumes, but as you pick through them, out of 100, there might be 10 good ones."

Too many candidates feel they don't need college degrees or that they can teach themselves necessary networking skills, according to Stephensen. "That's not what people are looking for," she said.

What they are looking for is experience coupled with a high-level understanding of the business, an ability to put IT objectives into a business context. "The tech guys have to understand what the business considerations are," Ostrowski said.

People skills matter

Leveraging the interpersonal skills she developed while working in tech support helped Iliana Dorsey land a networking support role at Presidio, a value-added reseller of networking technology and services.

"It's very important for you to be able to talk to the customer," Dorsey said. She came to the United States after earning her computer science engineering degree in Venezuela. She then obtained a CCNA certification from Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. Since then, she said, posting her resume on the Cisco-centric resume boards has been enough to attract potential employers.

"I get emails all the time," she said, adding that she believes her Cisco certifications are a large part of the reason.

But she said the certifications on her resume aren't the only things that attract employers. There is also her willingness to stay flexible in meeting employer demands, and making sure she's in a position to keep improving her technical prowess and learning how to fill a business need for customers.

"Right now, I'm working with Cisco only, and the salary is a lot better," she said. "But the most important thing was the experience, the challenge that I will have. This new job -- I think I'll keep it for a long time because there is a lot to learn."

David Foote, co-founder and CEO of Foote Partners, said relevant work experience was invaluable to applicants and also part of what good candidates naturally looked for in a job.

What IT pros are looking for

"If you look at younger workers under 30, they may be looking for affiliation, but they want an interesting place to work -- somewhere fun, because they are working hard hours," Foote said. "They want to be happy going to work."

Beyond quality work experience, he said, potential employees look carefully at a company's culture. Pay is important to potential employees, Foote said, but they care about it much less than about the size of the company and, once working, the quality of management.

"The reason most people leave their employer isn't … pay, it's because they can't stand their manager or their situation," Foote said.

Of course, many networking professionals want a little of the star power -- to be working closer to the company's business driver and to feel that they are making a qualitative difference.

"A lot of IT people enjoy the role of working in profit centers in companies," Foote said, "and taking a look at the company as a whole and not just IT."

Many companies could help networking professionals get a better sense of their impact by simply doing performance reviews more than once a year, but Foote said that was rare. "Those companies have a much easier time retaining people once they get them; these employees get excited, read the stock reports, and they're not one-dimensional IT people."

But landing that dream job takes some work. "You have to like what you do to earn success, because it is a lot of work and effort," Dorsey said. "I think focusing on what you really want is the most important thing."

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