The next step, says Reed, is a skills assessment. Identify the hottest skills in the market, the ones that will help drive up your compensation. If your expertise is lacking or outdated, take a course, even online, or get a certification.
Nothing -- not even training or a certification -- replaces hands-on experience in a hiring manager's eyes, he notes. But if a company can't find someone with years of experience and "it comes down to you and another candidate with comparable skills, [a certification] will give you a leg up," Reed says.
For his part, DHR's DiFranco sees courses and certifications as a long-term strategy. A new skill certification alone won't impress a headhunter, he says. "A search firm is already bringing in people with three to five years of experience [in a particular skill] to a company," he explains. Instead, he advises IT employees to figure out the newest technologies that their current company needs, then get the appropriate training and ask to be involved.
"You're already a proven commodity" at your current employer, he says. "They're going to give you a chance if you have the credentials, more so than someone on the outside giving you a chance." Putting your new skills to work at your current employer will give you the experience you need to compete in the job market -- and might land you a raise or a promotion at your current company.
If you're really ready to take the leap to a new job, don't just throw your résumé out on an Internet job board -- your boss or someone else from your company could see it. "It doesn't take long for someone on the inside to find your résumé posted, and it may backfire on you" Reed says. "Your loyalty comes into question, and you might find yourself looking for a job because now you don't have a job."
Instead, tap into technical user groups and professional organizations, participate in networking events, and communicate with IT people who travel in the circles that you do. That's the way to find out who's hiring, what skills they're seeking and what they're paying. "Those are the things that will lead you to better compensation," Reed says.
Finally, recruiters or staffing firms can help you find a higher-paying position quickly, says the Chicago-based senior design and development engineer. He used two different recruiters to find each of his last two positions, and he emphasizes that the second recruiter found him his current job in just two days and "was able to get me what I wanted in terms of salary."
Mostly sunny skies ahead
The IT career outlook is improving from year to year, according to the Computerworld survey. Asked where they expect to be five years from now, 52% of this year's respondents said they anticipate being in higher-level positions, either with their current employers or at new organizations. In contrast, just 37% of the 2014 survey respondents said they expected to move up the ranks within the ensuing five years.
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