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There’s always a demand for key skills. When the corner finally turns on the global economic recession there will be a huge demand for technical expertise. That’s because few companies are investing in employee skills.

When they decide they need those skills, it’ll be too late to start training; so they’ll need to pay a premium.

Your mission is to capture that premium.

What are the skills that will earn you better rates over the coming years and how do you get them?

The skills employers most want break down into four main categories:

  • basic technical know-how;
  • formal education;
  • relevant business skills and vertical market experience; and
  • knowledge of specific hardware and applications.

Basic know-how

Basic technical know-how is about finding your way around equipment and systems.

In the past, employers would expect a narrow band of system or even application specific skills. Today’s employers prefer people to have a more catholic approach to technology. You’ll be expected to be familiar with a range of products. If you have a weak spot, you should brush up your knowledge in that area.

While employers used to accept that new employees needed initial training and a settling in period. When modern employers hire workers, they expect productivity from day one. If you can’t make a start on the first morning in a new role, you may not get asked back for day two.

There are exceptions. Some employers recognise their systems are unusual and may give training. However, recruitment specialists say this is becoming unusual and that one reason for the persistent skills shortage is employers will not hire people whose skills profile is a ‘near miss’.

Formal education

Of course, your track record and references are the best sign you have the right basic know-how. However, a good, relevant tertiary qualification is a better indicator.

Figures from Australia’s Graduate Career Council show a person with an undergraduate degree can expect to earn between $10,000 and $20,000 a year more than non-graduates.

In IT the gap between graduates and non-graduates is higher, for hourly paid contractors a good undergraduate degree is worth an extra $25 an hour.

People with higher degrees can expect to earn the same amount again. On that basis you can expect to cover the cost of a postgraduate IT qualification in about two years – though you might never recover the opportunity cost of the income you’ll lose while studying.

Business Skills

In the past, technical skills and some formal education would have been enough to keep the average knowledge worker in employment from now until retirement. This is no longer the case. These days employers demand IT workers also have business savvy. In some cases, this is as simple as just having good communications skills – though generally they want more.

Part of the reason for this is the changing nature of IT. Historically IT projects were strictly backroom affairs, taking place in an environment, which developed, let’s say, something of a counter-culture. Most of the work was cutting code or tweaking applications and required little contact with users and only rudimentary understanding of the business processes being automated.

In recent years, IT has moved centre stage. Today’s IT professionals spend a lot of time with other workers, understanding how the business works is now crucial. Communications skills – we’re talking about the ability to share ideas and concepts with colleagues, not making two computers talk to each other – are at a premium.

If you’re thinking of getting a formal qualification, it makes sense to take a course that combines technical components with business modules. Many universities now offer postgraduate IT courses that embrace accounting, law, management sciences and other business disciplines.

Specific Skills

Of course the main reason an employer may want to hire you is to plug in-house knowledge gaps. Your specific skills are most important. Right now there is a still a huge demand for key skills.

According to Network skills in demand, pay well in down economy in Network World:

76 percent of CIOs are looking for desktop support skills

65 percent are looking for network administration skills

64 percent are looking for Windows administration skills

Database management, telecommunications support and network management are all still highly sought after.

Web development, virtualisation and business intelligence are in demand.

ERP implementation, .Net development and Linux administration are also hot.

As you’d expect any formal qualification featuring one of the keywords mentioned above is worth upwards of $10 an hour over other IT positions. If you can combine these with recognised business know-how, you could be looking at earning considerably more.

While vendor-specific certification from the likes Microsoft and Cisco are unlikely to translate into large rate premiums, they will help make sure you get picked in front of rivals.

Finally, your practical experience is so important that it is worth making sacrifices to do some jobs purely for their CV value. Even a short-term contract in a responsible position on a successful or high-profile project could be worth a premium to future employers.

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