Wireless job skills in hot demand

For many organisations, finding staff with expertise in wi-fi and other non-wired technologies is becoming a necessity.

Scan the job postings: it network job descriptions increasingly cite wireless skills among the requirements. There has also been an influx of training courses in wireless and certification programmes aimed at wireless administration and security. These are adding lustre — and pay increases — to a range of wireless networking positions.

The demand for wireless skills is rising as companies in an improving economy look to expand and catch up on postponed IT projects, according to a recent study by Robert Half Technology, a division of the recruitment firm of the same name. “Businesses are saying [now] ‘we have the money to invest in these new technologies,’” says Jeff Markham, branch manager for the division’s San Francisco office.

Robert Half Technology’s recent report on the third-quarter IT hiring expectations of CIOs at large US firms found that management skills in wireless networks were in demand by 57% of the respondents. Markham says it’s becoming common to see wireless experience added to the requirements for such familiar jobs as network security analyst and network architect.

Wireless skill sets are becoming more precise and differentiated. Nine months ago, research firm Foote Partners began tracking the broad category of wireless network management. It covers everything from satellite GPS to wireless IP telephony, to 802.11 wireless LANs, says David Foote, the company’s president. Initial data shows this skill set commands a 6–10% premium over base pay figures. “It’s on our list of skills to watch,” he says.

Wireless seems to be an emerging driver in other skill sets as well, and those are growing in value as a result. One such skill set is the combination of messaging, email and groupware, which includes wireless messaging and email. Overall, this group of skills has risen 7.3% in value over the past six months, according to Foote. Another segment is Java programming skills: these skills — application programming for the Java messaging server and Java-based handheld and mobile devices — are “going through the roof”, Foote says.

To get the skills they need for growing wireless infrastructures, most IT groups are developing the expertise internally, using several methods.

“Our network administration, network operations, systems administrators and helpdesk staff are expected to know or learn wireless networking,” says John Bucek, executive director for information technologies at Mount Saint Mary College. The small liberal arts tertiary institute was one of the first places to deploy a pervasive 802.11a WLAN.

“The training that we provide is hands on, on the job,” Bucek says. “They go out in the field and tackle real problems or implementations under the direct supervision of our network administrator or a senior technician.” For a network of this size, a “few months of experience” is all it takes to learn how and where to mount access points, position antennas, and configure switches and virtual LANs, he says.

Making use of its WLAN vendors’ training programmes is how the Virginia Hospital Centre equips its IT staff to manage its Cisco WLAN, according to Mark Rein, its director of IT. Wireless certifications are not a priority. “Certifications are very nice, but we would rather have a person build a lab environment and have hands-on [experience],” he says.

How adding wireless to a skill set affects workers’ salaries is hard to say, because the effect varies by company size, location and growth rate, as well as other variables. As the data cited by Foote Partners indicates, wireless skills are increasing in value.

Mount Saint Mary College sees wireless as a standard part of the IT network repertoire, so there are no pay increases for staff adding it. At Virginia Hospital Centre, when a worker acquires wireless skills, it leads to a salary review, depending on new goals for the position. However, there are no hard and fast rules for what the increase is, Rein says. At Sharp HealthCare, adding skills of various types, including wireless, can result in 5–10% salary boosts, says William Spooner, Sharp’s CIO.

Wireless certifications could put some upward pressure on salaries. They can be obtained from a growing range of training companies, professional organisations and vendors: Cisco’s highly developed network training now offers six specialist WLAN certifications (three basic and three advanced) in design, sales and support.

There are also vendor-neutral certifications. Security University offers a 40-hour, hands-on programme for a professional certification in wireless security. One of the best-known vendor-neutral certifications is Planet3 Wireless’ certified wireless network professional, which covers categories such as administration, security and analysis. Foote Partners recently added Planet3 certifications to the ones it tracks. Eighty percent of workers with the security certification see a 6%–9% increase over base pay and having the wireless administrator certification results in a smaller (4%–8%) bump in pay, Foote says.

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