Come payday, it's good to be you

Although a softened job market has many network professionals willing to trade money for job security, salaries continue to rise and bonuses are back.

With 2003 salaries for network executives averaging $113,140 nationwide - and increases for all network titles outpacing the rate of inflation - the network profession remains an excellent career choice. That is just one of the findings from the 2003 Network World Salary Survey, in which we questioned 1,542 IT professionals with the help of research firm King Brown & Partners.

Network executives' salaries rose 3.5% in 2003, from 2002's $109,280. Network professionals with management-level titles (such as LAN manager, WAN manager, director of) and those with staff titles (network designer, operations) experienced 4% increases in salaries over 2002. This wallops the 2002 inflation rate of 1.59% and the 2.7% rate recorded for January through May 2003 by InflationData.com. (See "Your salary" chart.)

Specifically, LAN/WAN manager-level workers will earn base salaries of $71,670 this year, while those with staff-related titles pull in $63,230. Salary increases for network professionals also compare well to the 3.8% average rise in compensation experienced from the first quarter of 2002 to the same quarter in 2003 for all jobs across the private sector, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Perhaps the biggest grin-inspiring surprise of the survey is bonuses. Network executives - those with IT titles such as senior vice president and vice president - expect a healthy $15,070 in bonus money for 2003, a 27.4% increase over 2002. This will even trump the bonuses earned by CIOs, who expect $12,190 for 2003, a 1.6% rise. Across all job titles, network professionals' anticipated 2003 bonuses will increase 3.3%, with those holding e-commerce-related titles looking out for an inspiring 30.9% increase to $3,090 in 2003.

When combining base salary, bonuses, stock options and other payments, total compensation for network executives in 2003 will reach $133,480, a 3.4% increase over 2002's $129,100. Across the board, the mean total compensation for network professionals increased 3.7% to $73,910 for 2003, compared with $71,300 in 2002.

When it comes to payday, it's good to be you.

Click here for a comparative chart (will popup in new window).

Job security No. 1

Yet underneath raises and hefty bonuses runs a current of fear. While IT jobs aren't particularly targeted for elimination from companies in embattled industries, they aren't immune either. Alternatively, struggling companies sometimes freeze salaries and eliminate bonuses in hopes of avoiding layoffs - not always with success. The result is, for all but the highest-paid network professionals, job security has become the No. 1 factor of job satisfaction - up from a rank of No. 3 in 2002 and from its nearly non-issue status two years ago.

Survey respondents say they are less worried about long-term unemployment than they are about being forced via a layoff into a less suitable, lower-income job. This is a marked difference from the job-hopping-for-salary-increases attitude that characterized IT professionals a couple of years ago.

"The people who have remained employed for the past six to 10 years - they're still making the same amount of money. But the people who have been unfortunate enough to be laid off, they need to take whatever job is out there, which generally is not the ideal job for them - not fully utilizing their skill sets," says Greg Folsom, vice president of IT at Arnold Worldwide, an advertising agency in Boston. He has watched others struggle in a layoff quagmire, such as two co-workers at his former job who took big pay cuts to become employed again.

Although the survey shows that Folsom and others of his rank are most likely to say "challenge of work" is the most important factor for job satisfaction, this father of three rates job security highest. "While it's always good to be challenged, job security is No. 1 for me. I'm probably typical of an IT director - I'm close to 40 [at 39]. I'm the breadwinner," he says.

Other network professionals say job security comes down to skills. Today's weaker job market is a form of housecleaning, says Denise Dreier, senior network engineer for Textainer, a worldwide freight firm in San Francisco.

"In the Bay Area, there are a lot of unemployed tech workers, but there were a lot of people who worked in dot-coms that shouldn't have been working in that field - who had no qualifications and no real skills," Dreier says, adding that she remains confident she could find another job if the need arose. "For the engineering and systems administration side, the demand is still there, is always going to be there. Companies need people to run their networks."

Certainly the yearning for job security has led to staff stability and reasonable pay requests. "We haven't had turnover here in probably two years - zero turnover in the IT department," Folsom says. "I don't hear, 'We should be making more money because we have a certificate in this or that!' anymore. People are content to be gainfully employed."

Network professionals do have other desires besides confirmation of next week's paycheck. Rounding out the top 5 overall factors for job satisfaction across all titles, benefits package lands at No. 2; challenge of work, No. 3; overall compensation, No. 4; advancement potential, No. 5. When looking at job satisfaction factors by title and income, the survey finds that those with higher incomes are looking for more recognition, challenges and autonomy while those who have lower salaries are more focused on professional development and training, and annual raises.

Influences on great pay

Throughout the years, including 2003, the salary survey has consistently shown that several criteria significantly influence high pay (see graphic, "What affects your pay"). While individual situations vary, statistically speaking as the following factors increase so does pay: responsibility, hours worked, age, size of employer and tenure. Some influences are fairly straightforward: work more hours, make more money. Others are subtle. Pay increases with responsibility, for instance. Higher-paid workers have more network servers within their scope, more clients tied to the servers and more people reporting to them. However, they also work the longest hours.

What affects your pay
Factors such as hours worked, size of company and education level most heavily influence your paycheck.
Work more, get paid more

Hours worked per week

2003 base salary
<45 $63,880
45-54 $73,220
55+ $84,750

Employees of larger companies earn more

But they also tend to be older and have more tenure.
No. of employees 2003 base salary
<100 $64,040
100-999 $66,760
1,000-9,999 $76,030
10,000+ $85,120

Income rises with education

But not necessarily through certificates.
Education 2003 base salary

High school

$65,070
Associate’s degree $63,410
Bachelor’s degree $74,480
Graduate school $89,840
No certificates $71,130
One certificate $65,340
Two+ certificates $70,330

Still, after the burnout years, many IT workers happily sacrifice pay for quality of life. Mark (last name withheld upon request), a senior network systems engineer for a financial services firm in Kansas City, Mo., did so about a year ago when he moved from consultant for a company to regular full-time status. That change reduced his hourly pay rate from $60 to about $35, but this 38-year-old father of a toddler says the trade-off has been worth it. "I've been in IT for a long time, and I've had jobs where I worked 80 hours a week for weeks on end, and that was normal. I've gotten to a point in my life where I want a pretty steady 40 hours a week. I'll go outside that when the need is there, but I want balance. I'll definitely give up money for that," he says.

Mark earns $72,000 and is expecting a bonus of about $10,000 (15% of his salary) for 2003. Bonuses can run as high as 20% of salary in his department. As he lives in an area where the cost of living is lower, yet is earning pay on par with the national average for his job description, he says he's happy with his new salary.

Like responsibility, the relationship between company size and high pay is not direct. Employees of larger companies tend to make more. However, they are also more likely to be older - 35-plus - and have more years logged with the current employer, our survey finds. Two other factors are linked statistically to pay rates: location and gender (see story, "Women in networking" ).

Loyalty and longevity

One surprise condition linked to higher pay is tenure in an industry. Many network professionals pride themselves on being employable by any vertical industry - and view their industry-independence as a way to keep future job opportunities as wide as possible. But as responsibility, salary and position rise, so does attachment to one's industry, the survey found (see graphic "Your loyalty").

"I always used to think I could go work at a shoe factory and my job would be exactly the same," Folsom says. But he's learned that IT is irremovably intertwined with vertical industry. "If the network is up, the servers are up, the connection to the Internet is good and e-mail flows - that's all well and good, but that's the baseline stuff," he explains.

True success, he continues, comes when workers react with the "wow factor," as in: "Wow, the IT guys came up with that new way to do this, and it's really helping us." That makes intricate knowledge of the advertising industry's many specialized IT needs, such as media-buying tools and graphics-file delivery systems, a must.

"I need to realize why things are set up in a certain way and to think about tools I could deploy for the creatives - the people that bring in the money - to be more productive . . . before they ask," Folsom says. "I was so wrong when I used to say I could go work in a shoe factory."

Not surprisingly, then, the survey shows that as income increases so does loyalty - but only to a point.

Those making less than $40,000 are more likely to be "seekers" (people actively looking for another job). Those in the $40,000-to-$60,000 range are more likely to be "explorers" (those not actively looking but who would pursue interesting opportunities if they stumbled upon them). Those earning more than $80,000 are more likely to be "approachables" (those who would apply for another job if specifically asked) or "loyalists" (not interested in other jobs at the moment).In addition, seekers are more likely to be men, have higher levels of education, work over 54 hours a week and have less than 10 years of tenure at their current company. Loyalists are most likely to be older than 44 years old and with their current companies 10 or more years.

So network professionals are behaving more loyally than they were two years ago - no more job-hopping (no more signing bonuses either, for that matter) - but still are keeping their ears to the ground. Back in the job-hopping days, Mark says, "IT people were very pompous about their ability to go, 'I don't like this job this week. I think I'll go down the road, make 20% more and do something else for a few months.' Two years ago, I went through four different companies. Part of it was security and part of it was trying to find the right mix. But now I am more than willing to take a huge pay cut in order to have some stability."

Book-learning bonus

This year's salary survey shows that nothing substitutes for a four-year degree for those who want the highest-paid executive jobs. The mean 2003 salary across job titles for those who have completed graduate-level schooling is $89,840. It is $70,330 for those with two or more certifications.

Folsom, the statistical exception of an upper-level network executive with a two-year associate's degree and a handful of certifications, still desires more formal education. "I always think about going back," he says of college. "Rather than going to more IT-related classes, I need more business-related classes, more writing classes. There are people who work for me that only have a two-year degree or dropped out of school because they were bored, and I'm sure that someday they are going be saying what I'm saying right now - 'I wish I went for the four years because it just makes you a more well-rounded person.' "

The upshot is, network professionals are seeking balance more than ever. They want challenge balanced with job stability, pay with quality of life, and real-world know-how with book learning.

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