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Survey: Blue moods in IT shops

Market researcher Meta Group finds that burnout is common among IT workers, even though salaries continue to rise, and employees with "hot" skills can demand pay hikes.

Those information technology workers still holding down jobs are making more money this year, but their morale is suffering, according to a recent report from consulting firm Meta Group.

Meta Group's survey of North American IT managers found that base salaries continue to rise 5 percent on average--the same as last year--and workers with certain "hot" skills, such as computer system architects, senior Web developers and senior network designers, can snag pay increases of 8 percent to 10 percent. But amid rounds of layoffs and long work weeks, the surviving techies are frequently blue, suggests Maria Schafer, program director of Meta Group's Human Capital Management Service and author of its annual "IT Staffing and Compensation Guide."

In the report, released last week, Schafer says 71 percent of IT managers indicate that IT employee burnout is a serious factor in their organizations. "Working through this prolonged recession, which has seen budget cuts across the enterprise, numerous staff cutbacks and general sector uncertainty, has definitely taken its toll on IT employee morale," she said in a statement.

The IT sector overall has been in a funk since the go-go days of the dot-com boom. IT spending fell in both 2001 and 2002, according to market research firm IDC. IDC also recently trimmed its estimate for IT growth this year to a rise of 2.3 percent from an earlier projection of a 3.7 percent increase. Meanwhile, the American Electronics Association trade group says the technology sector has trimmed its work force by 10 percent over the last two years to 5.1 million jobs in December 2002, with manufacturing jobs bearing the brunt of the cuts.

Tech worker advocates have criticized the H-1B visa guest worker program for worsening the job market during the downturn. And a swell of technology jobs being shifted overseas also bodes poorly for U.S. programmers and engineers.

Micro Software Services, a Miami-based maker of logistics management software, has avoided layoffs in the past couple of years. Its chief technology officer, Scott Volkers, says his staff of some 20 to 30 IT professionals averaged raises of about 5 percent last year. "The raises are reasonable," he said. "We haven't held back."

The company just hired two additional IT workers, with neither getting signing bonuses, Volkers said.

The Meta Group study, based on surveys of more than 650 large and midsize companies spanning 14 industries, found that 44 percent of responders are using sign-on bonuses as a means to attract higher-level IT employees. The report also discovered that tech jobs still can pay well. For example, the median salary for senior business application developers was $73,821, while that for Unix systems administrators was $84,895. On the lower end, the median salary for help desk analysts was $41,793, and that for network administrators was $54,000.

The report also found that more respondents than last year predict an increase in the IT compensation budget during the next year. "There is little question that IT budgets will continue to decline slightly or remain flat this year," Schafer said. "What is most interesting is the fact that, despite this, we expect IT compensation to actually rise, in some cases at the expense of non-IT employees."

According to the report, 54 percent of respondents are still offering IT employees an annual year-end bonus.

Even so, roughly two-thirds of the survey's respondents indicated that IT morale is an issue. One strain is long hours. Schafer said it's typical for IT employees to work more than 40 hours per week, with 55-hour weeks common.

Offering training opportunities to employees is the most common way to combat low morale, Meta Group found. But a lack of available bodies to handle IT duties means companies don't always manage to get their workers to training sessions, Schafer suggested.

At Los Angeles-based law firm Allen Matkins Leck Gamble & Mallory, the 11 members of the IT staff typically get to go twice a year to training sessions that may last 3 to 5 days, according to Director of Technology Frank Gillman. Gillman says another step he takes to improve morale is giving his employees a say over decisions. "People always want to feel some control...that they have input," he said.

Micro Software Services' Volkers said his staff morale has been helped by new, interesting work, such as making the company's software Web-enabled. He also aims to assign his techies entire projects rather than small chunks of programming problems. "That kind of gives them a sense of purpose," he said. "Otherwise it's just piecemeal. It's like a factory."

Schafer said that even amid this tech downturn, the best companies will prove they care about workers--which will help those organizations as conditions improve. "They all say they value employees," she said. "It'll be the companies that really demonstrate that during these difficult times that'll retain employees."

To Gillman, low techie morale may be caused in part by a factor beyond companies' control: increasing demands for tech advice outside of the job, such as questions from family members. "Even when you walk away from work, it follows you around," he said. "You just don't get any downtime."