Network and computer administration ranks fourth among the U.S. Department of Labor’s 10 fastest growing occupations. Yet, despite the excellent industry growth projection for the current decade, right now, the job market feels tight, with corporate downsizing continuing in the IT sector.

Your company may be downsizing, your industry may be on the skids, but there are still strategies you can use to move your career forward. We’ve gathered tips from career experts about how you can use this downtime to your best advantage. Put these tips into practice, and you’ll be ready to advance your career when the IT world starts turning again.

Time to think: What do you want?
“There’s not a lot of movement,” said Andrea Kay, a career consultant, author, and columnist. “This is not to say there aren’t companies hiring, but if you’re working and you’re feeling pretty secure about where you are now, use this time to think about what would be a more ideal situation for you and create a vision of what that is.”

Kay said most people are in such a hurry, they don’t take the time to think about what they really want. In the current climate, IT pros can either work to solidify their positions within their current company or prepare for a move. Most of all, you want to convey the impression that you bring value that exceeds the dollar amount of your paycheck, she said.

Start with research, both near and far
The first step to moving your career forward is research, said Margaret F. Dikel, author of The Riley Guide.

“Always make sure you know what is going on in your occupation, in your field, in terms of new technologies and advancing technologies.” Dikel said.

She said it’s important to know what’s going on in the tech sector at large, but also what’s happening in your own IT circles. That includes what goes on in other departments within your own organization.

“It never hurts to understand the driving forces in business beyond the technical stuff,” said Jason Berkowitz, cofounder of Hyrian, a hiring services company.

“Anyone can go and get a ton of certifications. It doesn’t say anything about what makes them stand out from all the hundreds of people who also have a ton of certifications,” Berkowitz said. “The person who has all those things and indicates that they understand how the work they do affects the bottom line—that’s the person who’s going to stand out.”

Volunteer to gain experience with new technologies
Once you’re aware of new technologies and business processes, take action, advised Dickel.

“Find out what new technologies are available, where and how they’re being applied, then make sure you know how to use them.”

To prove that you’re up to speed, she recommends volunteering your services to a nonprofit group and applying yourself to a project.

“Not only will you get to hone new abilities, but you also might make some valuable contacts,” she said.

Network now, not after you’ve been canned
Kay is a big proponent of networking, but not the way most people do it. The time to network is before you need to, she said.

“You need to be making contact with decision makers and planting seeds, so that when a position opens, they’ll think of you,” Kay said.

Most people wait until they’re desperate or until they think they’re going to be laid off.

“If you start planting seeds now, when that opening comes around, you’re going to be thought of before the people who haven’t put their face and credentials in front of those hiring,” she said.

Berkowitz believes networking is but one facet of what should be a multidisciplinary strategy.

“People who put all their career eggs in one basket are shortchanging themselves,” he said. “You can’t pick one channel and stick with it.”

Berkowitz advises networking along with joining user groups and visiting a variety of Web sites where you post your resume and submit applications for potential jobs.

“Not every job in the world is posted on Monster or HotJobs,” he said.

Think beyond your job description
Remember that you may have a plethora of opportunities for career advancement within your current organization. You can position yourself to climb the ladder right where you are just by ensuring that your employer thinks you’re worth more than what it costs to keep you. It’s especially important to have the right attitude toward extra work and new projects. Kay and Dikel were swift to point out that the flipside of “It’s not my job, man” is “I have no job, man.”

“The people who have the most value will be sought after when there is a big hiring wave again,” Kay said. “The people who are most valued by their present employers are the people who can make the company as efficient and as effective as possible. That’s what you should be sitting there thinking about, not just doing your so-called job.”

Learn to emphasize the impact of your accomplishments
One way to increase your value is to make yourself valuable in other areas within your company. If a company must downsize, it will choose to keep you over someone else based on the “continued or enhanced value you’re going to bring,” Kay said.

You should always be looking for ways to make whatever you do better and more effective for the company, even if it doesn’t mean a new title or more pay, Kay said. Remember that your efforts make their product or service more competitive and help them become a better company. This practice is the “personnel version” of return on investment, and it gets attention, she said.

Be able to communicate the value you bring
Not only should you strive to bring greater value to your employer and business, but you should be able to communicate effectively about what you’ve brought to your team. Most people don’t have a very good answer when asked, “Why should I hire you?” Kay said.

She suggests that instead of touting the myriad applications you’re familiar with, you should be talking about the differences you’ve made in your company. You should be able to communicate the value and impact you’ve had on your organization.

“That’s your homework,” she advised. “If you need help, get somebody to draw it out of you.”

Kay suggested that you practice providing an answer that includes “impact” by writing out, in a sentence or two, how you’ve increased revenue, efficiency, or morale by creating a new process, suggesting some new software, and so on.

Berkowitz agreed with the strategy.

“It’s great to say ‘I installed a sales tracking system,’” he said. “To say ‘I installed a sales tracking system that allowed our salespeople to be 20 percent more productive’—that is something that speaks to the business needs of the organization.”

How are you moving forward?

Has the current economy diminished your ambition or are you continuing to try to advance your IT career? Post to the discussion below and tell us what you’re doing to move forward while the IT world stands still.


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Discover the secrets to IT leadership success with these tips on project management, budgets, and dealing with day-to-day challenges. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays