Let headhunter Kevin Rosenberg help you set your career compass. Kevin is managing director and partner of BridgeGate LLC, a California-based search firm. Kevin, who specializes in IT management searches, shares tips on a host of career issues in this biweekly Q & A format.

Q. I’m a 12th grade student trying to plan for my future. So far, everything I’ve learned about computers has been self-taught, including:

  • DOS, Windows 3.11/95/98/NT4, and Linux
  • Programming in C++, VB 6, JAVA, Javascript, CGI, and HTML

I’ve been working with PC hardware for the last three years. Right now, most of what I’m learning is directed toward networking and databases.

I will soon be graduating and am interested in pursuing a career in network administration. I was going to take the MSCE tests in NT4 admin, TCP/IP, and a few other areas, but many people tell me that that won’t help me find a job.

Two-year tech schools were another option I was considering, but again, many people say that would be a waste of time and money. I can’t afford a four-year college, and my high school grades aren’t very good. Are there other options I’m overlooking? Would the MSCE certification help me?

Jake S

Rosenberg: I applaud you for taking the first step in career management: planning. Too many professionals let their careers happen rather than make them happen. The results can often be less than inspiring. As for your situation, it is a challenging one. You sound like a driven young man, with a great deal of technical expertise and a relatively clear sense of who and what you want to be.

However, the big question is this: In the absence of formal education, will what you’ve learned be enough? Probably not. Although you may skate through some stages of your career unscathed, the lack of a formal education may hinder you at some point.

My advice is to use your obvious technical proficiency and get into the industry. I agree that the MCSE, MCP, CNE, and other certification programs are sometimes ill perceived because there has been a deluge of people entering the market with the certs but no expertise. In your situation, however, this may not be the case. You have invested many years of your pre-adult life in technology and have obviously continued to invest in yourself. Accordingly, to continue to do so makes perfect sense.

Go for the certs. But don’t stop there! Get into the workforce; accept the reality that a high school diploma and a killer technical background will take you only so far. While you are working, go to night school. Go to your local community college, get your grades up, and then crank out a BS as fast as you can.

Q. Kevin, do you know of a Web page where I can find out the salaries in Nebraska for AS/400 and PC job-related careers? I sure would appreciate some help!

Sue S., Omaha

Rosenberg: You can check out http://www.midrangesystems.com , where regular salary information for AS/400 professionals is published. Use the site search feature to hone in on the information you are looking for.

For accurate data specific to your area, call a reputable recruiter. Most should be happy to help.

Q. I am a Web developer with a large corporation. The other Web developers and I feel we are grossly underpaid. We have spoken with our manager, and he claims we are being paid the going rate for our area. However, all the information we have seen and read says just the opposite.

My wife and son keep telling me I should look for a job with another company, but I don’t want to change jobs if I am being paid fairly. The trouble is, I don’t know if I am.

Should I try to show my manager that we are underpaid? If so, maybe we can change things here instead of changing jobs.

Bob C, aka Web Wizard

Rosenberg: Salary news is getting blown way out of proportion. Yes, there is a shortage of IT professionals. Yes, new jobs outpace the entry of IT workers to the market. Yes, this classic supply/demand pressure is driving salaries way up. But…do not forget that there is more to your job than salary—and there is more to compensation than your base. Your query is a classic one, and I have responded similarly to many others in the past.

I encourage you to look before you leap. Ask yourself the following questions:

What will I give up if I leave my current employer for another willing to pay me more?

What intangibles do I receive, and expect to continue receiving, that I may not find with a future employer?

How much of who I am professionally do I owe to my current employer, and does it reflect a pattern of continual investment in people that I might give up if I leave?

Is my current situation doomed, and does it warrant immediate action?

If your answers to these questions point undeniably to the need to polish up your resume, then do it.

If not, I agree that perhaps you can approach your company and demonstrate that prevailing market conditions make it imperative for them to rethink their compensation strategy for key positions. However, I offer one caution: This is a fine line, and you should not hold your research over your employer’s head. Extortion will get you nowhere fast. Approach your employer and express your satisfaction with the elements of the job you value, make it clear you want to stay, but stress (and support with documentation) that continued wage suppression would harm the team. If you are in a management role, this may be a less-sensitive topic. If you are not, be cautious.
Send your career questions to Kevin . He’ll try to answer them in upcoming columns.