According to Jack Cullen, president of IT staffing firm Modis in Laurel, Maryland. “We’re seeing a very big demand for these folks, and the reality is there’s not a lot of them,” he says. Cullen has seen a steady increase in client requests for networking professionals, and one likely cause he points to is that several areas now seeking qualified people — mobility and cloud services among them — were barely on the radar a few years ago.
“Fast forward to an emergence out of a recession. Every CIO in every company is paying attention to these areas, and now everybody’s looking around saying, ‘Where do we get people to do this?'” More organizations are willing to green-light new networking projects now that the economy is less bleak, and the barriers that earlier kept demand from creeping up are now falling.
We’ve also moved away from a PC-centric era into one that revolves around networking, says Mike Landman, CEO of Atlanta-based Ripple IT. “The reason networking is in such high demand is that the easier computing gets, the more critical networking becomes,” he explains.
Landman’s company provides IT support and services to clients in a variety of industries, and he recognizes the impact of today’s uber-networked topology.
“Every VoIP call, video chat, and iPad connection makes networking more difficult, and at the same time more critical,” he says. Users expectations and business needs run the gamut, making IT pros with strong networking skills very hot commodities.
Eric Shepcaro, CEO of Telx, a co-location and data center company headquartered in New York City, believes there several trends behind the amped-up demand for networking professionals, including “an overall expansion of new fiber network deployments globally, ongoing growth of wireless and mobility, along with new ways to do mobile backhaul and Machine-to-Machine (m2m) networking.”
He also sees new networking positions sprouting up in fast-growth and high-visibility areas such as near-field communications (NFC), latency reduction efforts largely brought about by the ever-increasing bandwidth needed to support video and data , and the ongoing quest to make networks as secure as possible.
“It’s a combination of new technologies, increased consumption of video and data, and the need to strengthen overall network security,” he says.
Because there are so many different specialty areas and industries seeking them, Shepcaro says that today’s highly skilled professionals with complex networking experience are being wooed by organizations outside the traditional fields.
“The demand is coming now from not only service providers, but also enterprises that are implementing new services like cloud,” he says. Unfortunately, the sources that normally turn out skilled networking people haven’t kept up. “Educational programs have not increased significantly over the last 10 years, so the labor pool has not grown significantly,” Shepcaro says.
Another reason the talent pool is so small, Cullen says, is that clients are being extremely picky about the type of expertise and experience they’ll accept when bringing new folks on board.
“I think there is a fear of what don’t they know,” he explains. Though workers are coming out of tech schools with certifications, organizations are often looking for someone with serious boots-on-the-ground time to drive projects forward.
“As you move applications into a cloud environment, it takes experience. They’re really looking for somebody who has been there and has done that,” Cullen says. And rather than go with a newly minted professional, they’re instead looking to bring in someone with a background full of successful projects.
Landman agrees that experience counts for a lot these days. “Networking is difficult,” he says. “The time it takes to become a seasoned networking pro is much longer than the pace of technological change.” The sheer quantity of networked devices has increased exponentially in recent years, Landman explains, which has boosted the need for networking professionals commensurately. He likens it to suddenly developing a tenfold need for brain surgeons in just a few years. “Getting enough qualified people in the pipeline, in addition to the time and experience needed, is a challenge because it’s not an easy skill set.”
Most experts believe the demand curve is headed up, and Landman doesn’t think there will be enough qualified people coming into the workforce in the near term to keep pace. However, he says a surprising factor could change the game again.
“Technology, fittingly, could make a meaningful impact,” he says. “Many easier to manage networking technologies are coming to market, and that could take some pressure off of having to have such a deep skill set.”
Cullen sees the need for networking professionals trending up for the next several years. “I think companies today are making decisions about what they’re doing with the cloud, what they’re doing with mobility, what they’re doing with applications, and what they’re doing with outsourcing,” he says.
But not only will organizations need to determine where dollars will be spent and how projects will be managed, many will also discover the need to bolster the skill sets of their existing workers.
“Companies are going to have to realize that this is a shortage, and they’re going to have to escalate the learning and capabilities of the folks that they have.” Cullen says that training budgets were slashed a few years ago, but “companies really need to make investments in their people that have the general skills but don’t have the specific skill sets.”