Desperate for direction

It's been a challenging year. The dot-com kingdom collapsed under its own weight, and the economy took a turn for the worse. Layoffs and closings were the order of the day at many companies.

But even amid all the turmoil, IT professionals have remained overwhelmingly positive about job security, access to new technologies and their salaries, according to the results of Computerworld's 2001 Annual Job Satisfaction Survey.

First, the good news. The majority of this year's 779 respondents said they're generally satisfied with their jobs. For example, a senior consultant at an IT consulting firm in Baltimore said that he's better off now than he was a year ago and that he's working up to his full potential. The only thing he would change about his current situation is to increase company-paid training.

And the best news of all is that despite the economy's ups and downs, approximately 60 percent of respondents are very satisfied with their choice of a career in IT. The profession is still rewarding from a growth and financial perspective and few said they would switch careers.

But although the overall results are heartening, there are still some key areas that need improvement. Especially criticised were a lack of opportunities for employees to advance and insufficient communication with management.

A mere 30 percent of respondents said they're satisfied with opportunities for advancement at their companies. According to one disgruntled network support employee, "I'm not allowed to expand my horizons. If it wasn't for the pension, I'd be out of here."

Overall, the picture is anything but black and white. Those who rate themselves as generally satisfied in their jobs still have complaints, but others who are unhappy still give certain areas such as salary and flexible work hours a thumbs-up.

In addition to job security and the opportunity to use new technologies, workers' relationships with IT peers got high marks, while the frequency of bonuses and the connection between pay and performance didn't fare as well.

Don't Hold Me Back!

With the dramatic cutbacks and layoffs of the past year, companies are streamlining resources and reducing layers of middle management. For many in IT, this translates into fewer opportunities to advance. Approximately half of the IT professionals surveyed said that their opportunities to advance are less than satisfactory.

A help desk operator at one IT user organization says she wants management to realize her potential and to not restrict her to working within her job description. She also says that a lack of support from management financial and otherwise is taking its toll.

"[People in upper management] refuse to implement new ideas because the staff fear change," the help desk operator says. "Our budget is low, and we feel unappreciated. This feeling affects our performance and our loyalty to the organization."

But that isn't the case for everyone. Michael Heer, a senior consultant at Intelligent Technologies says he's satisfied with the opportunities to advance at his company.

Like most of the respondents, David Walters, a database administrator at Science Applications International, is basically satisfied with his job. He says he's especially content with his salary and the variety and scope of the projects he works on. But Walters says he does see room for improvement.

A 20-year industry veteran, Walters calls himself a realist and says he has learned that flexibility and reasonable job expectations are key to his success.

"If I see something that needs to be done, I'm encouraged [by management] to do it," he says. "This is a great thing. I need new challenges, and if the place where I work allows that, I'm happy."

Walters says that managers who want to retain good employees need to offer more training and bonuses attached to the successful completion of projects. And he's not alone. Training and performance-related bonuses are two areas in need of improvement, the survey found.

The connection between pay and performance is a thorn in the sides of many of the IT professionals surveyed. About half of respondents are less than satisfied with how much they earn in salary and bonuses vs. how much they think they deserve. And more than half of the respondents said they don't think that bonuses are generous or frequent enough.

A managing director at a financial services firm -- who was recruited and guaranteed a substantial first-year bonus -- says he feels he's been misled. "Bonuses were nowhere near what they were promised," he says.

From a business standpoint, the company is doing well and is considered an industry leader, but from a budget and operational standpoint, that hasn't filtered over to the IT department, says the director. "The budget process is absurd," he says. As of early May, the IT department still didn't have a 2001 budget, he says.

This director was recruited in an attempt to improve the IT department and introduce new technologies and make it more responsive and business-focused -- none of which has happened, he says.

"What I found was that the actual appetite to take on new technology is far less than what I had expected," he says. "The tendency is to maintain legacy systems." He's looking for other job opportunities.

Everyone's Business

When it comes to understanding the business mission, IT folks are in the know. Approximately two-thirds said they have a strong grasp on the business goals and strategies of their companies. But far fewer -- a little more than one-third -- reported that they feel empowered to influence day-to-day company success.

Apparently, there's a disconnect between knowing what needs to be done and having the opportunity to do something about it. The message to management is that communication needs to improve and that business goals and IT strategy need to be better aligned.

Not surprisingly, flexible work hours and the physical work environment rated high among the concerns of survey respondents. More than 60 percent said they appreciate flexible hours but would love the option to telecommute more frequently. In general, IT professionals have few complaints when it comes to their work environments.

Not everyone, however, is comfortable with the round-the-clock expectations that go along with some IT positions. A database administrator at a major retailer is having a difficult time trying to balance her family's needs with her job.

"You need to be flexible at all times -- whether you are dealing with problems remotely or otherwise," she says. "When you have children, it can be tough. There have been times when I've had to bring my kids along with me on a Sunday morning when something has come up."

Additional training and resources would help, she says, as would the option to telecommute.

At the end of the day, IT professionals work hard and expect to be rewarded appropriately. Whether that means performance-linked bonuses or career development opportunities, one thing is clear: If they don't find it where they work now, they'll go looking for greener pastures elsewhere.

Cohen is a freelance writer in Washington.

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