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You're specialized? Your job may be on the line

Margie Semilof

IT experts who focus on a specific platform might consider not just adding some fresh skills to their repertoire but also taking on some tasks that can improve their overall value to the company.

Not doing so may result in being squeezed out of a job in the not too distant future.

This week, market research firm Gartner Inc. identified six IT trends that will have a significant impact on business, people and the IT industry. One key trend in IT for the next few years will be a reduction of specialists in favor of individuals with a multiplicity of IT experience, said an analyst at Gartner, in Stamford, Conn.

Specifically, Gartner predicts that the job market for IT specialists will shrink by 40% by 2010. Gartner defines a specialist as someone with deep expertise in a particular skill set but no other skills outside of that skill set. Individuals with this background often work in the largest companies and manage a specific IT platform.

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"When a company needs to build or rebuild its organization, these are not the [employees] they can count on," said Diane Morello, a Gartner analyst. "Their specialization limits [the company's] ability to move to the other vendor that the organization may be taking on, so these people may be less and less valuable."

Employees who are narrowly defined need to expand their skill sets and build up visibility so people outside of their organizations recognize their versatility, Morello said.

It's likely there may be a need for deep specialization in areas such as Exchange Server or the use of a single programming tool. But, over time, it's not unthinkable that these technologies might be outsourced or that some form of automation might take over. If an organization is to maintain any specialists at all, then the focus has to be on excellence and on proving excellence by building up programs and projects where the individual has had a stake.

The definition of a versatile employee will be different in every shop. At Husky Energy Inc., employees' skill sets are broad, but individuals must be able to dig in and understand the technologies in the IT infrastructure.

Christopher Nicholson, senior IT analyst at the Calgary, Alberta, energy company, said you still need someone who knows networking architecture, such as Active Directory or [Novell Inc.'s] eDirectory.

That same individual might need to know something about operating systems, but not to the degree of the individual who is responsible for software. "So, they are still specialists in networking," Nicholson said. "Maybe you get a person with one or two specialties and broad knowledge."

Nicholson said he considers himself a generalist but has considered developing a security specialty. He does, however, bring a great deal of experience; he came up through the company ranks as a desktop specialist.

At large companies, there will always be specialists, said Clyde Johnson, senior network and systems administrator at HCC Industries, a Los Angeles environmental equipment manufacturer. Though Johnson focuses on managing Microsoft products, he is also the point guy for systems, servers, workstations and for Exchange Server. The staff is small, with one other IT executive, a programmer and another network administrator.

Gartner's Morello said reduction of the value of the specialist over a more versatile employee has progressed over time, but in the past few years there is a new urgency and a timeline. Today, companies can outsource many jobs. Also, more IT automation means more employees can be displaced.

And with companies merging and the consolidation of the workplace, individuals with undifferentiated skills will likely be bypassed. Those with a deeper grasp of the business context will get the jobs.

Here are Gartner's other five top IT trends:

  • By 2008, 10% of companies will require employee-purchased notebook computers. Gartner says notebooks are already used for personal purposes. They are also becoming inexpensive. Companies may begin to offer a notebook allowance, similar to car mileage today.
  • By 2010, 30% of U.S. homes will use only cellular or Internet telephony.
  • Business process outsourcing service providers will capture $11 billion of insurance revenue by 2008.
  • A 50% growth in healthcare software investment could enable clinicians to cut preventable deaths in half by 2013.
  • Through 2008, investigation of new technologies will slow as discretionary budgets divert to regulatory compliance.

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