by Peter Sayer

Hands-on IT skills pay off more than certs, study says

Aug 30, 20215 mins
CareersIT SkillsSalaries

Learning the right leading-edge skills is paying off in a job market that is becoming oversaturated with certificate holders, driving down credentialed premiums.

Insider Pro | Computerworld  >  IT Salary Survey 2021
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IT workers looking for a new job following the “great resignation” could make bank if they have experience in risk analytics and assessment, smart contracts, devsecops, or another of the more in-demand skills of the moment.

But the flipside is that CIOs will have to pay top dollar to hire employees with those skills, or others with tools such as Apache Pig, Oracle Exadata, or broader fields, including deep learning, blockchain, or site reliability engineering, according to a new report from Foote Partners.

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Employees are earning the highest cash premiums for experience in risk analytics, a niche area of business intelligence development: Premiums rose almost 12% in the first half of 2021, according to the third-quarter update to the 2021 IT Skills Demand and Pay Trends Report.

Big data, big rewards

It’s also an expensive time for CIOs to be hiring experts in Apache Pig, a decade-old platform for scripting the analysis of large data sets on Hadoop: While some had written it off years ago, bonuses paid for experience with Pig have jumped 20% since the start of the year, according to the report. It’s part of a resurgence in demand for big data analytics: Salary premiums for big data analytics expertise generally have risen by a similar amount, albeit from a lower base.

Other already highly rewarded skills for which bonuses are rising further include Amazon DynamoDB, Apache Cassandra, big data analytics, Cloud Foundry PaaS, microservices, MLops, and Splunk.

All these skills are attracting pay premiums of more than 16% of base salary. In contrast, the average premium paid for any one of the 621 skills tracked by Foote Partners was 9.4% in the second quarter of 2021.

That’s just shy of the record 9.6% it hit in the third quarter of 2020, the highest average premium in 20 years, highlighting the continued demand for skilled IT workers throughout the pandemic.

Not all skills are in such high demand. Premiums for workers skilled with SAP and other enterprise business applications are down 12.5% over the past year (although the decline is slowing) and those for web-commerce development skills are down 5.4%. Premiums for database and operating system skills are up around 0.4% and 0.7% respectively, while those for applications development and management methodologies have grown a little faster, up around 0.5% for the quarter and 1.8% for the year.

Those premiums are for noncertified skills and experience that employees have demonstrated in the course of their employment, but workers can also earn skills-based premiums by another route: gaining certifications.

Traditionally, IT certifications have been touted as a route to higher pay, but their relative value continues to decline. Premiums for the 546 tech certifications covered in the report fell to an average of 6.6% of base salary, the lowest in 7 years, widening the pay premium between certified and noncertified tech skills.

Certification supply outstrips demand

Foote Partners CEO David Foote puts that down to an increase in the supply of certifications, outstripping the demand for certified workers.

That’s a distinct possibility, as many workers, furloughed or laid off during the lockdowns, turned to online learning to pass the time and increase their employment prospects. In August 2020, a survey by Strada, the Center for Education Consumer Insights, found that one-in-five Americans planned to enroll in an online, skills-based or nondegree training program within six months.

It’s been clear for a while now that cybersecurity is a key area of concern for many enterprises, and so workers have been skilling up, taking certifications to help them move into this new area. The certifications will still earn them a premium, but that premium is getting smaller all the time — down 1.5% last quarter, and 7.5% in the last year — as employment supply and demand move closer to equilibrium.

The only certifications category that rose in aggregate was databases, with average premiums up 1.5% for the quarter (but still down 2.6% over the year). The average bonus paid for cybersecurity certifications dropped 1.5% on the quarter, down 7.5% over the past 12 months.

Nevertheless, Foote’s report pointed to some certifications holding or increasing their value: The SAS Certified Data Scientist Using SAS 9 credential and the Information System Security Engineering Professional (ISSEP/CISSP) cert have both increased in value by more than one-third over the past year, while bonuses for GIAC Web Application Penetration Tester (GWAPT), Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect, Okta Certified Professional, Oracle Certified Professional (OCP) – DBA, and Microsoft Certified Azure Solutions Architect Expert are all up by more than a quarter. The premium for all those certifications is more than 9% of base salary.