IT has long had a reputation as a profession that can offer high salaries for high flyers.
But a major study by Computer Weekly and recruitment specialists Computer People shows that for most IT professionals, it is not how much they earn, but how challenging their job is that counts.
The survey of nearly 3,000 Computer Weekly readers shows that engaging work, recognition for a job well done, job security, freedom to make decisions and career prospects, all rank above salary in most important factors in any job.
The findings will have profound implications for employers who want to attract and retain the best people. Many are facing an uphill struggle to recruit qualified IT professionals, particularly those with business experience, as competition for staff heats up.
As more employers put the onus of keeping skills up to date back on to staff, IT professionals naturally gravitate to jobs that offer work on leading edge technologies. Employers looking for staff to work on legacy systems are at a disadvantage.
“If someone is in a dead-end job, there are a lot of options to further their career. If they are working in a company with legacy technology, where there is no career progression, they are going to look elsewhere,” said Nick Dettmar, a director at Computer People.
The research suggests that staff are prepared to vote with their feet if employers do not offer satisfying work.
Forty nine per cent said the main reason they left their last job was because of poor career prospects. This compares to only 32% who jumped ship because of the salary. About 60% of respondents said they are keeping an eye on the jobs market.
But providing that employers help staff develop their skills and their careers, staff are unlikely to start looking for jobs elsewhere, says Philip Virgo, strategic advisor to the Institute for the Management of Information Systems. Salary only becomes important for most employees after they have already taken the decision to leave, he says.
Virgo built up and retained a team of highly skilled security specialists at the National Computing Centre in the 1980s, despite paying them at least a third less than the market rate.
“I was progressing them faster than anyone else could have done. I was giving them really challenging work, lots of responsibility,” he said.
Unlike boom times of the past, the current upturn has not been reflected in salary rises across the board. Most IT professionals have had salaries in line with headline inflation of between 3% and 4%. Average salaries now run to £40,000.
But this masks the fact that for IT professionals with families, the real rate of inflation is higher than the headline figure. In real terms, salaries have fallen, says Virgo.
The reason is the offshoring effect, which is depressing pay rates, particularly for IT specialists who lack business experience. It has led to a two-speed jobs market, with pay rising for specialists with in-demand skills such as SAP or .net. Rates for helpdesk and support staff are falling.
“The rise in salary for an SAP consultant or a .net developer has risen considerably,” says Dettmar.
“But at your lower end, your support positions and helpdesk people, salaries have started to drop off. There is not really a shortage of people. There is a tendency to outsource which has driven down salaries.”
Rather than cutting the pay of existing IT staff, employers are making a greater proportion of salaries dependent on performance. The survey shows that 33% of IT professionals now have a performance related element to their salaries – something that could not be said a year ago.
Today, 52% of IT professionals can expect bonuses. Some 15% earn bonuses of up to £1,000. But 6% earn as much as £6,000 to £12,000, and a handful receive bonuses between £30,000 and £50,000. Bonuses tend to be highest in communications, systems integration and banking, and lowest in retail and manufacturing and the public sector.
Another indication of the offshore effect is the tendency for IT staff to stay longer with their employers. About 25% of IT professionals have been with their current employer for five to seven years, and another 25% for 10 years or more. One reason is that in the current environment, the price of changing employers could be a pay cut, says Virgo.
“It has not been a good time to change jobs. For an awful lot of jobs at the moment, the salaries of those in the post are higher than the advertised salaries on offer.”
At the same time, employers are keen to hold on to their best staff. They have no choice. The sharp decline in the number of people studying IT at university means that new entrants are hard to come by.
As a result, the age profile of the profession is changing. Once seen as a profession for youngsters, 29% of the permanent IT workforce has been in the industry for 20 years or more. Only 9% have less than five years’ experience.
But as the workforce ages, the tendency for IT professionals to be regarded as “over the hill” after they pass 35 should diminish. Age discrimination, experienced by 19% of IT professionals in the survey, should decline.
The more routine technology jobs will continue to be outsourced. But in the future, the onus will fall increasingly on employers to provide their staff with motivating, stretching jobs at the cutting edge, if they want to hold on to the IT staff who understand their business.
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This was first published in January 2007