Demand rises for wireless skills

Most network groups acquire this expertise internally, as IT pros learn on the job.

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

Plotting a wireless IT career

For now, treat wireless as an additional skill set, not as a field of specialization:
Learn your boss's wireless priorities and what skills will be needed.
Consider training programs offered by your WLAN vendor.
Look for training programs that focus on hands-on experience.
Focus on hot areas, such as wireless LAN design, radio frequency management, wireless VoIP and security.
Remember wireless isn't just 802.11; it includes cellular, Bluetooth, Ultra Wideband, RFID, sensors and WiMAX.
Evaluate wireless certification programs with input and feedback from your boss.

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 global staffing and placement firm. "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.

Hospital group builds wireless LAN skills internally

Wireless training, certification grow steadily in popularity

"Every job [request] we take from a company has some kind of revenue or profit justification," he says. "They say they're using IT as a strategic asset, or to increase revenues and profits, or to reduce costs. The [job] growth is gradual, but it's supersteady." This trend is especially clear in wireless-related jobs.

Hiring expectations

Robert Half Technology's June report on the third-quarter IT hiring expectations of enterprise CIOs 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. Foote Partners about nine months ago 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% to 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, e-mail and groupware, which includes wireless messaging and e-mail. 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 admin, network operations, systems administrators and help desk staff are expected to know or learn wireless networking," says John Bucek, executive director for information technologies at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y. The small liberal arts college 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 programs is how the Virginia Hospital Center, in Arlington, equips its IT staff to manage its Cisco WLAN, according to Mark Rein, director of information technology. 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 Center, a worker's acquiring wireless skills leads to a salary review, depending on new goals for the position. But there are no hard and fast rules for what the increase is, Rein says. At Sharp HealthCare in San Diego, which deployed an Aruba WLAN, adding skills of various types, including wireless, can result in 5% to 10% salary boosts, says William Spooner, Sharp's CIO.

Certification and compensation

Wireless certifications could put some upward pressure on salaries. They can be obtained from a growing range of training companies and professional organizations - 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 also are vendor-neutral certifications. Security University in Stamford, Conn., offers a 40-hour, hands-on program 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% to 9% increase over base pay attributable to having that credential. Having the wireless administrator certification results in a smaller - 4% to 8% - bump in pay, Foote says.

One emerging wireless skill that's in high demand in some areas is signal distribution: redistributing cellular signals inside buildings - big office and residential structures in particular - to improve voice and data services. Typically, contractors handle the installation of signal-distribution systems, but there are new products that can be installed to do it.

And enterprise IT can be involved in conceiving, planning and implementing or overseeing such projects. "Just think how many square feet of government office buildings there are, and they all need it," says Anthony Westerling, senior account manager at Quality Software Services, a Gaithersburg, Md., government and defense communications infrastructure contractor.

"More and more people are going to want to use their PCs as well as their cell phones [on 3G cellular links]," he says. "I think it's going to be an area where there will be no end to the demand."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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