If you're thinking about mapping out your next career step, here are some of this year's hottest job skills. One big trend affecting certified and non-certified positions: Many large companies are getting to new technology deployments that they had put on the back burner as they focused on complying with rules stemming from such legislation as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.IT skills outlookHere\u2019s a look at skills that are more and less desirable in 2006 compared to 2005.Skills that were ranked higher this year than last include:\u2022Helping to launch new products and services.\u2022Improving project-management discipline.\u2022Recruiting, developing and retaining staff\/leadership\/business skills within IT.\u2022Improving workforce productivity.\u2022Supporting revenue-growth strategies.\u2022Cutting costs.\u2022Ensuring regulatory compliance.\u2022Performance management.\u2022Centralizing IT organization management.\u2022Implementing mechanisms for IT governance, portfolio management.\u2022Source: Foote Partners, www.footepartners.comIf you're thinking about mapping out your next career step, here are some of this year's hottest job skills. One big trend affecting certified and non-certified positions is that many large companies are getting to new technology deployments that they had put on the back burner as they focused on complying with rules stemming from such legislation as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.Now IT departments are focusing more of their energy and money on creating products and services, says David Foote, president and chief research officer at Foote Partners, an IT workforce research firm. This has created a backlog of projects that IT departments have to complete.That's one reason some hot IT jobs include application development, Foote says. According to his firm's research, deployments need employees with customer-facing skills that support new products, services and customer-support systems; infrastructure skills in networking, wireless and security; and enabling skills in project planning, management and open source (see graphic).One company, NPC International, the largest Pizza Hut franchisee in the United States, echoes Foote's findings: Application development and infrastructure skills are at the top of its list of in-demand proficiencies."We have been converting most of our application development to Visual Studio; now, with approximately 70% of our development in this environment, we have an ever-growing need for [Visual Studio] developers," says Mike Woods, CIO at NPC in Pittsburg, Kan.Two other important areas of expertise are "problem-solving skills, such as second- and third-level support, and network engineering," Woods says. "We're interested in IT staff who have network engineering skills beyond a knowledge of routing tables," he says.Because these skills are technical, Foote says, employers are putting more effort into retaining employees who have them. Employers who haven't thought about retention programs may be suffering the loss of some top staff after other companies recruit them.Retention is at the forefront for Woods as he scopes out the market for employees. He points out that his location also is challenging. "It's not that there aren't a lot of people with the skills needed. It's getting people to relocate from urban markets and then stay," he says. NPC is 90 minutes outside Kansas City. "Longevity, for some, is staying at one job for 18 to 24 months. Most of our people have been here three to five years."Not only are folks finally getting to projects that had been put off, but they're also thinking about their businesses differently, says Paul Groce, partner and head of the CIO practice at executive search firm Christian & Timbers. "For years Microsoft was the company that other corporations aspired to be like. Today companies aspire to be like Google," he says."We're in the return of the Web, and that's driving IT," Groce says. One example is the migration of the call center to contact center, he says. If you're an expert in managing a call center, you probably already have started thinking about new training to prolong your career. If you're a project manager who can deal with the complexities of mapping out the migration to a contact center, often based on VoIP, you're in a better position.Cost-cutting skills and regulatory-compliance expertise are less desirable this year than last, according to Foote Partners' research. It's not that employers don't care about reducing expenses, but other skills - improving project-management disciplines and workforce productivity, for example - are more important. One could even argue that those two skills are, in effect, cost-cutting measures that allow you to get more with what you have. Experts also agree that employers are hot on vertical experience. It's no longer enough to be a technical expert."Experience in vertical industries with specific technologies" is in demand, Foote says. If you have experience in finance, you might have more job choices, Groce says.IT staffers are sought after whose backgrounds are in private banking, finance and retirement services. "The American consumer is wealthier than 10 years ago, and as baby boomers move into retirement there is the need for more sophisticated tools to support these consumers," he says.The demand for storage-area network (SAN) skills also is increasing, Groce says: "Folks that were dealing with 1TB of information are now moving 4, 8, 20 or 30 TB. There is the need to bring in technologists experienced in providing scalable solutions that provide full utilization of mining and leveraging of that data."Foote also cites SAN skills and management as being in demand this year. He points out that last year SAN experts were making about 8.3% more than the previous year.Groce has some advice for IT employees who have long-term aspirations to become a CIO: "The CIO of today looks different than he did five years ago," he says. Today CIOs are "tightly interwoven in a world-class company with product development and go-to-market strategies," he says. "The CIOs of 2010 will be individuals who could succeed the CEO. [They are] well-rounded, with international business and outsourcing experience," he says. Five years ago, the CIO generally came up through the technical staff with less business knowledge.