By Paul Simoneau
Most organizations have shifted their IT priorities from 2014 as their needs have changed with local, national and international circumstances. IT is clearly one of the areas that every organization must watch closely. The same is true for individual skills that technicians may have learned or mastered last year. Some are relegated to smaller roles, while others are the up and coming hot zones to new learning in such a quickly evolving environment. The good news is that IT education is moving at the same speed, so individuals and organizations can maintain a competitive advantage.
Hiring and salary surveys, such as the joint Global Knowledge and Windows IT Pro 2015 IT Skills and Salary Survey, the Foote Research 2015 IT Skills and Certifications Pay Index™, Computerworld's annual Forecast survey of IT executives, and the Robert Half 2015 Salary Guide: IT Salary Evolution, along with information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections and Dice.com have presented a common view of the skills in demand in IT for 2015.
Here, in survey order, are the top 12 major skills. In each case, you will read why they made the list and what those surveyed looked at to hire in that skill set.
1. IT Security
With all that has been happening in our world, it is far from surprising that fully a third of the survey respondents indicated that security is their top IT priority. According to Dice.com, cybersecurity is the fastest growing job category over the last year.
Anyone familiar with IT will agree that certifications have been on a roller coaster ride of importance over the years. In this case, labor consultants Foote Partners determined that half of the top 10 IT certifications are related to security: GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst, CyberSecurity Forensic Analyst, CWNP Certified Wireless Security Professional, EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker and EC-Council Computer Hacking Forensic Investigator.
2. Network Engineering
The most recent Robert Half Technology IT Hiring Forecast and Local Trend Report identifies network engineering and administration as the skill that well over half of U.S. technology executives said is a key skill needed in their organizations. That's in line with the staffing needs at many organizations around the world. IT leaders reported networking among the skills that they need most. Those skills includes expertise in IP routing, switching, firewall filtering, packet capture and packet tracing/debugging.
IT Career Finder says the network engineering focus can be summed up in one word: wireless. The spread of mobile devices, the growth of fourth-generation (4G) wireless networking such as LTE, and new protocols such as Bluetooth Low Energy have organizations looking for network engineers with the skills to design, implement and secure wireless network portions. Our IT Skills and Salary Survey identified these skills as important to 23 percent of the decision-makers for 2015 IT hiring plans.
3. Systems Engineering
System engineering ranks higher on the surveys this year at more than 21 percent. That may be the result of generic and specific operating system certifications, including CompTIA Server+, Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate and Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert, Linux Professional Institute Certifications (LPIC), Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) and the VMware family of certifications.
CompTIA Server+ certification is well regarded in the computing industry. Companies like Dell, IBM, HP, Lenovo, Xerox and Intel recommend or require that server technicians earn CompTIA Server+ certification.
The Server+ certification exam focuses on foundational server-related topics that are vendor-neutral in nature, including server hardware, operating systems, storage systems, the IT environment (documentation, diagrams and best practices), disaster recovery and troubleshooting.
The Microsoft Certified System Engineer certification is nice to have though Microsoft has ceased awarding it. It has been replaced by a two-step solution: Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate is a prerequisite to all of the different flavors of Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert.
Though Windows continues to rule desktop systems and is in wide use in both businesses and data centers, Linux is important for most cloud-based operations. There it serves up the applications, the Web and much of the Internet. This makes LPIC skills extremely valuable to organizations and, therefore, in high demand.
Looking beyond the available vendor-neutral Linux system certifications, Red Hat certifications stand out. That especially includes Red Hat's more senior-level certifications, which are popular among both IT professionals and HR departments.
RHCE is regarded as a high-level credential and is far from easy to acquire. It requires a four-hour, hands-on, performance-based exam that is both intense and quite demanding. Those who earn the RHCE can and often do go on to obtain other Red Hat credentials, including Red Hat Certified Virtualization Administrator (RHCVA) and Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA).
The VMware family of certifications has become must-have credentials for IT professionals who have interest in virtualization. With a full certification road map that includes all skill levels, VMware certifications are well known globally as best of class.
With the release of VMware vSphere 6, the VMware Certification Framework has been updated to include truly role-based certifications with improved course-to-exam mapping. Certifications are segmented into four levels and four technology areas: data center virtualization, cloud management and automation, network virtualization, and desktop and mobility. The entry-level certification, VMware Certified Associate (VCA), remains unchanged. The exam requirements for the next tier on the certification ladder, VMware Certified Professional (VCP), have been updated. Candidates will now need to pass two certification exams to obtain a VCP-level certification. The biggest change is the replacement of the VMware Certified Advanced Expert (VCAP) certification with the VMware Certified Implementation Expert (VCIX). The most advanced VMware certification level continues to be the VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX).
The added market value that a certification brings can be as high as 30 to 40 percent, with the average salary increase potential in the 5 to 11 percent range.
4. IT Architecture
As organizations grow more complex, they are becoming more aware of the value of a great architect. Twenty percent of our respondents agreed. An IT architect designs the information systems that are to be applied following an organization's needs, objectives and short-term and long-term goals. They define the basic network and systems structures, create a list of all essential design features and provide the framing that the systems engineers and developers will follow.
The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF) skills are expected to be the most highly paid noncertified IT skills. They continue to be a regular on most IT hot skills lists. This year they have moved well up the list.
5. Network Operations
Like network engineering skills, the day-to-day network operations skills are basic underlying knowledge that 19 percent of our decision-makers said is important in 2015. In fact, network users often consider it a major IT responsibility. It has become even more important now that so many organizations are moving to Software-Defined Networking and the virtual systems that support them.
6. Cloud Computing
Companies continue their move away from big infrastructure investments in favor of cloud-based systems in 2015. More than 40 percent of the respondents to the Computerworld Forecast survey said that their organizations will spend more on Software as a Service (SaaS) and a mix of public, private, hybrid and community clouds in 2015.
"Companies began discovering the cloud about four years ago and it's been quite volatile in the last year. Will companies continue to invest in the cloud? The answer is 'yes,'" according to Foote.
Although Foote Partners has found a three to three and a half percent drop in market value, Foote notes it's an area with some unpredictability but it's cyclical. "It's a volatile marketplace when it comes to talent," he says.
7. System Operations
Somewhat separate from the skills in the systems engineering area above, 16 percent of the decision-makers in our survey said that systems operations skills are sufficiently specialized to the operating systems in use, so they designate these skills as separate from the closely related engineering skills.
The day-to-day operations work requires the same understanding of the peculiarities of the related operating systems. It also requires that each technician stays up to date with the latest updates and changes. In addition to those skills, the technicians must also be familiar with Storage Area Networks (SANs), virtual machines that run on the organizations' systems, and systems' interfaces with the organizations' cloud computing solutions.
8. Project/Program Management
The demand for project managers jumped to 16 percent this year. Project and program management are new to the list, but Foote Partners predict these as 2015's high demand areas. Some of these make the list of hot skills because many studies found data or trends that will probably drive more pay into these areas in 2015.
Leon Kappelman, lead researcher for the Society for Information Management's (SIM) IT Trends Study, said, "There is some catching up going on now, because there was so little investment in recent years," noting that companies need project managers who can oversee large projects that span the enterprise.
Better project managers require a strong mix of business and technology knowledge. They also need experience leading teams using the organization's specific methodologies.
As the markets continue to pick up and organizations begin more large-scale projects, expect the requirements for these skills to intensify over the coming months. Most managers agree that organizations will need to develop these skills themselves.
9. Database Management/Development
Database administration is a tried-and-true IT role. Every organization needs those skills on an ongoing basis. Our survey found that 15 percent of decision-makers are looking for technicians with those abilities. The new buzz around big data and analytics is driving much of 2015's requirement for people with these skills.
"You've got the ability to crunch massive amounts of data, but you still need to understand how your database has been put together," says Terry Erdle, executive vice president for certifications and learning at CompTIA.
In fact, in Robert Half Technology's latest IT Hiring Forecast and Local Trend Report, 52 percent of U.S. technology executives listed database management as the skill set in greatest demand within their IT departments.
The Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) offers four higher-level certifications beyond their alliance CompTIA's Storage+ that replaces the SNIA Professional (SCSP). Those certifications are: Engineer (SCSE), Architect (SCSA), Expert (SCSN-E) and SNIA Sales Qualification (SQSSP).
Like many certifications, recent studies show that many organizations offer a salary premium simply since they can avoid paying for the certification. Skilled storage professionals are in wide demand, and this is especially true of those who can show an advanced level of technical competence in data management and cloud computing.
11. Help Desk
IT leaders say they have a growing requirement for help desk and technical support staffers. The reason is ongoing projects that expand the variety of devices and applications they have to support.
"Demand for this position is a function of growth," says Andrew C. Jackson, president and co-founder of BravoTech, a technology staffing firm in Dallas, and a member of the SIM Management Council. Jackson adds that the growing number of organizations implementing bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs is fueling the need, because both the volume and variety of hardware and software within organizations are proliferating.
Beyond the organization's hardware and software needs, most also expect mobile expertise. Soft skills like effective verbal/written communication, time management and customer support are also key to success in this space. Twelve to 30 percent of various survey participants have plans to bring on more new technical support specialists in 2015.
12. Voice Engineering
Both end users and IT departments continue to grow more comfortable with a mobile device or softphones as an IP Telephony (IPT) endpoint. There will also be some users who will cling to their desktop phones.
These skills are rapidly blending with those in network engineering. The 11 percent of our survey respondents may have seen many of these requirements as already part of the network engineering skills as has happened in other surveys. Voice over IP (VoIP), unified communications (UC) and BYOD contribute to the growing list of skills in this area.
Cloud providers report double-digit growth of their IPT and UC offerings in 2015. Organizational IT departments' growth will stay in the high single digits year after year.
In previous years, consultants have been a large part of the IT workforce. That trend is slowing, Foote says. Part of the reason is probably more confidence in the strength of the economy. Many organizations also want the additional loyalty employees tend to bring with that status.
Approximately 17 percent of CIOs plan to expand their IT teams in 2015, according to the newly released Robert Half Technology IT Hiring Forecast and Local Trend Report. This represents a three percent increase from last year's third and fourth quarters. The same survey shows that 67 percent of CIOs plan to hire open IT roles.
"The current competitive hiring environment will continue into the first half of 2015 as the supply of highly skilled technology professionals remains below demand," said Deborah Bottineau, senior regional manager of Robert Half Technology. "Mobile, big data and security are the key areas driving hiring as IT departments expand in these areas. Companies with current openings in the areas of desktop support, wireless network management and Windows administration should consider acting with urgency to secure top talent as these skills are among those in greatest demand."
All of this activity is an encouraging sign for the economy as well. There are continuing opportunities for those who are willing to strengthen their resumes by adding to or expanding their IT skills.