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Networking skills in short supply; sometimes really short supply

VARs are desperate for experts in security, wireless, Linux and Novell integration, but less so for Cisco and Microsoft experts, despite the success of those vendors in the market.

Salaries for most information technology workers will continue to rise at about the same rate they have been for more than a year, according to an IT salary report from Robert Half International.

Salaries for security and networking engineers, however, are rising dramatically, as is competition among integrators and value-added resellers (VARs) with highly marketable skills.

The steepest increases were for Web developers – projected for a 4.2% increase – and software developers, who the study predicted would get 5.1%.

"Hah. It's going up faster than that for us," said Pat Grillo, president and CEO of Somerville, N.J.-based security integrator Atrion Communications Resources Inc.

"It's very intense," he says of the training and recruiting process. "We can't find [the right skills] outside, so we tend to go with a lot of homegrown people, and then you have to fight to keep them."

After Atrion paid the full cost for the months-long process of training a new employee to pass a CISSP certification exam – including a trip from New Jersey to the West Coast – the employee went to a competitor who promised nearly double the salary.

A survey from the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses (NACCB) confirms that IT employment is healthy – rising 4.2% between the end of September and the same time a year ago.

But growth, after rising steeply during the first part of the year, has been essentially flat since May.

And computer vendors – who Grillo blames as the most aggressive and effective recruiters pulling talent from VARs and integrators – are either laying people off or cutting back their hiring plans, according to Chicago tech recruiting company Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc.

Job cuts in the third quarter of this year were 23% higher than the same month last year, the report said.

Those indications show that computer vendors expect another slowdown in spending and have begun laying off staff to keep their profit margins healthy, the report concluded.

The problem may be too many jobs at some companies, but KIS Consulting in Fremont, Calif., has resorted to buying other companies to get the networking skills it needs, according to company CEO Sean Canevaro.

The privately held company, which has 40 engineers, seven partners and about $14 million in annual revenue, runs an extensive IT-training program, and integrates and resells systems from Novell Inc., Microsoft Corp., Cisco and others.

"It's tough in a lot of areas in networking, but we've seen that more acutely on the Novell side [of the practice]," Canevaro said. "That's growing much more rapidly than we can find engineers to fill the spots."

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Novell has been on such a long decline that even engineers with Novell certifications have let them slide and gone on to other technologies. The Zenworks and Novell directory-based identity management are the two most particularly rare skills, he said.

"We have ads on every bulletin board and job site and newspaper where we operate, and still come up short," he said "That's actually forced us to go out and find other Novell companies and buy them." The most recent is Interstate Software in Independence, Mo., an acquisition that was announced Nov. 1.

KIS is also short of Linux coding and integration skills, though there are enough IT people and recent college graduates interested in Linux to provide a base from which to recruit.

But the skills drought is specific to only certain areas, Canavero said.

"We have not seen the same problem on the Microsoft or Cisco side [of the business]," he said. "Cisco engineers seem to be – not a dime a dozen — but maybe a dollar a dozen. And Microsoft [specialists] are everywhere. We just hired a Microsoft guy and he was right in line with the guy we hired six months ago, in terms of salary."

However, in wireless networking and, especially, security, almost any set of competent hands is in high demand.

"Someone is almost always calling up one of my people and saying they'll pay X more than they're getting now," Grillo said.

"Most of my engineers have been here an average of 12 years," Grillo said. "Most of the ones I've lost were the real new ones."

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