Demand rises for wireless skills

Most network groups acquire this expertise internally, as IT pros learn on the job.

Scan the job postings: IT network job descriptions increasingly cite wireless skills among the requirements. There also has been an influx of training courses in wireless and certification programs aimed at wireless administration and security. These are adding lustre - and pay increases - to a range of wireless network positions.

The demand for wireless skills is rising as companies in an improving economy look to expand and catch up on postponed IT projects, according to a recent study by Robert Half Technology, a division of the global staffing and placement firm. "Businesses are saying [now] 'we have the money to invest in these new technologies'," a spokesman for the company says.

"Each job [request] we take from a company has some kind of revenue or profit justification," he says. "They say they're using IT as a strategic asset, or to increase revenues and profits, or to reduce costs. The [job] growth is gradual, but it's steady." This trend is especially clear in wireless-related jobs and the spokesman said it's becoming common to see wireless experience added to the requirements for such familiar jobs as network security analyst and network architect.

Wireless skill sets are becoming more precise and differentiated. Foote Partners about nine months ago began tracking the broad category of wireless network management. It covers everything from satellite GPS to wireless IP telephony, to 802.11 wireless LANs, says David Foote, the company's president. Initial data shows this skill set in the US commands a 6 to 10 percent premium over base pay figures. "It's on our list of skills to watch," he says.

Wireless seems to be an emerging driver in other skill sets as well, and those are growing in value as a result. One such skill set is the combination of messaging, e-mail and groupware, which includes wireless messaging and e-mail. Overall, this group of skills has risen 7.3 percent in value over the past six months, according to Foote. Another segment is Java programming skills: These skills - application programming for the Java messaging server and Java-based handheld and mobile devices - are "going through the roof", Foote says.

To get the skills they need for growing wireless infrastructures, many IT groups are developing the expertise internally, using several methods. "Our network admin, network operations, systems administrators and help desk staff are expected to know or learn wireless networking," says John Bucek, executive director for information technologies at a small liberal arts school which was one of the first places to deploy a pervasive 802.11a WLAN.

"The training that we provide is hands-on, on the job," Bucek says. "They go out in the field and tackle real problems or implementations under the direct supervision of our network administrator or a senior technician." For a network of this size, a "few months of experience" is all it takes to learn how and where to mount access points, position antennas, and configure switches and virtual LANs, he says.

Wireless certifications could put some upward pressure on salaries. They can be obtained from a growing range of training companies and professional organizations - and vendors: Cisco's highly developed network training now offers six specialist WLAN certifications (three basic and three advanced) in design, sales and support.

There also are vendor-neutral certifications. Spectrotech in Australia offers three levels of Certified Wireless Network Professional certifications: CWNA (Network Administrator, CWSP (Security Professional) and CWNE (Networking Expert). Also available is the CWAP (Analysis Professional), 40 hours of hands-on learning using the latest enterprise-class wireless LAN analysis hardware and software. A five-day course, it covers 802.11 frame structure and exchange processes, wireless LAN performance and security analysis, and wireless LAN troubleshooting. It offers skills for analyzing and troubleshooting wireless LAN systems and hands-on training installing, configuring, and utilizing five analysis products: AirMagnet, Network Chemistry, Network Instruments, TamoSoft and WildPackets. As well as a series of 'road shows' which create custom courses for corporate customers, CWNP courses are taught in Brisbane and in Sydney where the company has a hands-on lab for demonstration and testing. Courses are also scheduled this year for India and Singapore.

Spectrotech founder and principal consultant Mark Morgan said IT professionals intending to study for wireless certifications should look carefully at the materials and study guides on offer to avoid some 'rogue' materials in circulation.

One emerging wireless skill that's in high demand in some areas is signal distribution: redistributing cellular signals inside buildings - big office and residential structures in particular - to improve voice and data services. Typically, contractors handle the installation of signal-distribution systems, but there are new products that can be installed to do it. And enterprise IT can be involved in conceiving, planning and implementing or overseeing such projects. "Just think how many square metres of government office buildings there are, and they all need it," says a spokesman at an infrastructure contractor.

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