The decline in demand for IT networking specialists has been dramatic even by the standards of the current steep downturn in IT recruitment. Yet the bigger picture is not quite as bleak as the slump in recruitment advertising would suggest, for there is still a shortage of people with higher-level skills in administration of converged voice and data networks and management of projects where data communications is a major component.
Indeed, according to a report by analyst firm IDC, there were 78,000 unfilled vacancies for networking professionals in the UK in June 2002. IDC's research director Marianne Kolding, who wrote the report, admits this figure is over optimistic in the light of the recent global economic turmoil and the imminent prospect of war in Iraq, but still insists there is a huge latent demand for people with the right combination of skills and experience.
This must come as a surprise to the many networking specialists who have lost their jobs in the past year and are finding it near impossible to find employment. It is equally surprising to many senior people in the industry with some involvement in recruitment, such as Sandy Aitken, mobile business leader for Europe at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
Aitken says that, like many other large enterprises, PwC is now overstocked with bread-and-butter network professionals, in particular those recently qualified to the level of CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert). "We trained loads of people in the CCIE a few years ago, and now we cannot get rid of them," says Aitken.
So what is going on? On the one hand there appears to be an acute shortage of networking skills, and yet many enterprises seemingly cannot dispose of their datacoms staff quickly enough.
The answer lies in the disparity in skills between those with little more than paper qualifications, even the once highly coveted CCIEs, and the people with wide-ranging real-world experience, says Ivor Kendall, vice-president of IP solutions at Cable & Wireless. "There are more people around now on the job market and there is less need for blanket recruitment advertising campaigns, but I still see strong demand for people with the right combination of skills. I do not see their salaries going down," he explains.
By contrast, network professionals with commodity skills are currently on a deflating wage spiral - if they are lucky enough to have a job at all. "Two to three years ago we could place a CCIE and get a minimum of £40,000 to £45,000," says William Rowe, recruitment consultant at IT jobs agency Abraxas. "Now it has completely changed, and you are looking at £35,000. There are just too many accredited people about."
The source of this problem was a headlong rush to train people up to accredited status as supply struggled to keep up with demand during the late 1990s. Sometime during 2000 or early 2001, as demand fell, all of a sudden enterprises found themselves with a surplus of fully qualified but inexperienced networking staff.
At the same time, the work available for such raw recruits was drying up, as enterprises ceased to perform cyclical network upgrades that required relatively basic skills. After all the Y2K compliance work, most networks were well up to date, leading to a close season in network upgrades that has been prolonged by the general global slowdown.
However, therein lies a spark of hope, for enterprises continue to depend heavily on their networks, and in many cases now need to upgrade to keep pace with growing traffic and increased distribution of their activities.
So, as Aitken admits, enterprises should perhaps not be too quick to ditch their CCIEs.
Indeed, according to Richard Ogden, proprietor of IT recruitment agency Intelligent People Solutions, many enterprises have erred by becoming too blase about recruitment during the glut of available staff, and have failed to exploit the opportunity to seek and retain the good networking professionals whose contribution greatly outweighs their salaries.
"I suspect hiring managers are sitting there complacently not getting the quality," he says. "They are failing to manage the recruitment process efficiently, for example by not retaining the CVs of good prospects on their databases."
Meanwhile, recently qualified network professionals face the age-old conundrum of needing experience to get the jobs that would give them experience. A good start though is to identify the market and technical sectors where skills are still in demand. During times of recession, the public sector is often a safe haven for jobs, and this is especially the case now as the Government struggles to meet its commitments to make all of its citizen-facing services available online by 2005.
In the private sector, many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are short of suitably qualified IT staff, and this demand does not generally show up in recruitment advertising. But, as Kolding points out, SMEs generally do not need and cannot afford dedicated network professionals. "They need all rounders with a variety of skills including network management," he explains.
It is worth noting that SMEs tend to be the pioneers of voice/data convergence, and some require people with knowledge of voice over IP (VoIP). As this is a new field, employers cannot expect to recruit experienced practitioners, and so a qualification in IP telephony could be a useful investment for CCIEs struggling to find work.
Another hot networking technology, for enterprises of all sizes and in all sectors, is security. But the problem here, according to Martin Hart, chairman of the Network Outsourcing Association, is that security is rather a black art, requiring considerable mathematical expertise, and it is not a skill that can be acquired via a quick course without real experience.
"A more accessible area for out-of-work networking staff might be project and programme management," suggests Hart. "Network management skills transfer more readily to that than security." There is still a dire shortage of people capable of managing IT projects, often with substantial networking components, he adds.
The other big area is wireless, although Ogden points out that investment in mobile data applications has been heavily dampened by the economic slowdown. However, Ogden has spotted some fragile shoots of recovery in this sector. "Motorola, for example, has started to recruit handset software engineers again, although not much else," he says.
The immediate outlook, then, is good for those with sought-after skills in security, programme management, IP telephony and possibly wireless, but bleak for those with basic paper qualifications or out-of-date experience.
Longer term, there are excellent prospects of a significant upturn in recruitment as delayed projects and upgrades are resumed, but timing depends more on the economic climate than technical considerations.
Prospects for networking professionals
- According to a report by analyst firm IDC, there were 78,000 unfilled vacancies for networking professionals in the UK in June 2002
- There is still a shortage of people with higher-level skills in administration of converged voice and data networks and management of projects where data communications is a major component
- Two to three years ago a Cisco CCIE could get a minimum of £40,000 to £45,000. Today they can expect £35,000. Recruitment consultant William Rowe says there are just too many accredited people on the market
- The public sector is one of the best places to look for work, as the Government struggles to meet its commitments to make all of its services available online by 2005
- In the private sector, many small firms are desperate for IT all-rounders with networking skills
- One of the hottest networking technologies is security. The problem is that it requires considerable mathematical expertise, and it is not a skill that can be acquired via a quick course without real experience
- Investment in mobile data applications has been hit by the slowdown, but there are signs that wireless will be a boom area in the future
- A qualification in IP telephony could be a useful investment for CCIEs struggling to find work
- In the long term there are excellent prospects of a significant upturn in recruitment as delayed projects and upgrades are resumed, but timing depends more on the economic climate than technical considerations.