Computerworld's 2007 Jobs Report: Back from the brink

After a big tumble in 2002, IT salaries have been climbing steadily. But for IT workers trying to regain their financial footing, a string of 3% increases makes the going tough.

As an assistant information systems analyst at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Corcoran, Kent splits his time between providing help desk support to 400 to 500 end users and handling IT procurement activities.

Kent's workload has increased considerably since he joined the IT group three years ago. His salary has increased, too, with a 5% annual pay increase this year through his union contract. That's a good measure higher than the 3.7% average increase that other IT professionals fetched in 2007, according to Computerworld's 21st Annual Salary Survey.

Problem is, a 5% boost for Kent works out to only a nominal increase. He started with the corrections agency at a salary well below the $80,000 median for the 9,290 IT workers and executives polled by Computerworld. And while living and working in the Corcoran area, which sits halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield, isn't as expensive as it would be in Los Angeles or Sacramento, it has been difficult for Kent and his family to make ends meet.

Although he has explored other opportunities, Kent fears that if he takes a position in the private sector, he'll end up with less job security.

But "I'm not making much more than I would if I were the manager of a McDonald's or a Starbucks," he says.

Although IT professionals who work in the public sector typically earn less than their private-sector peers, Kent's situation reflects the challenges that many working-class technologists are facing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. IT employees still earn an average wage more than double the US$36,140 median income for full-time workers; however, double-digit increases in gas prices and rising costs for groceries and other items are devouring their salary gains.

Yet there is good news for IT pros. After a substantial drop in 2002, IT pay has been slowly recovering, with small gains reported in each of the five years that followed. Plus, 75% of respondents to this year's survey reported that their salaries had increased, and 72% reported an increase in 2006.

And maybe most important, demand for those with specific IT skills, such as seasoned Web developers and people with network convergence skills, continues to climb and place upward pressure on salaries, according to recruiters, hiring managers and labor experts. In fact, IT workers with jobs that utilize their Web and networking skills saw their salaries outpace the 3.7% median increase.

"There's a supply-and-demand impact here," says David Van De Voort, a consultant at Mercer Management Consulting Inc. in Chicago. Although IT workers' compensation isn't skyrocketing like it was in the dot-com years, their wage gains continue to outpace those of the general workforce, he adds.

Meanwhile, many CIOs say turnover is starting to creep up while demand for project management, J2EE and enterprise architect skills are pushing salaries for many of those professionals higher, says Van De Voort. But that tells only part of the story. Although heightened demand for IT skills is lifting compensation across the market, not everyone is benefiting.

Take Tammy Wicks, a business applications analyst who has been at FedEx Freight for the past 12 years. For Wicks and many other U.S. IT workers, annual bonuses are dependent on corporate profitability targets being met. Wicks' bonus decreased this year after having risen steadily for the past few years, she says.

Meanwhile, the 4% pay raise she received "is definitely not a cost- of-living increase, especially where I live," in pricey Silicon Valley, she says.

Wicks says she's "completely indifferent" regarding her latest raise. "Increasing my skill set doesn't guarantee me a raise in any way, shape or form," says Wicks. "But I'm not actively seeking" another job, she adds, partly because competition for IT employment in Silicon Valley is so intense.

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