Four classic IT jobs that are moving to the back burner

Because of its unrelenting pace, IT can be a brutal profession on those who crave stability and tradition. These four formerly hot job roles are a perfect example, as they fade, morph, and change.
Written by Erin Carson, Senior Contributing Editor

'Volatile' is a word that comes up repeatedly when talking to IT professionals about the jobs landscape.

The overall employment picture may be relatively healthy, but job roles can change quickly as new technologies and trends affect businesses' IT requirements.

"Because this market is so volatile, things will change in a month-to-month basis, and it takes a while to understand where the trends really are," said Jon Heise, senior technical recruiter at Instant Technology.

The following four jobs were once 'hot', but are now experiencing important shifts. These roles aren't going extinct any time soon, and there are still lucrative careers to be found in some of these areas, but the overall trends are for fewer job openings.

1. Mainframe programmers

"Before there was web development, before there was a lot of custom software development, mainframe programming was really the primary programming job," said John Reed, senior executive director at financial recruitment specialist Robert Half. With the advent of web-based software, and more client server software, mainframe applications are not used so much. Fewer people are learning COBOL and looking for careers in mainframe programming.

This is not to say the job role is extinct — governments and large financial institutions still use mainframes and will continue to do so. According to Mary Shacklett, CEO of Transworld and TechRepublic contributor, mainframes still run 60 percent of business applications worldwide: "For a transaction processing computer, there is no faster or more reliable machine out there than a mainframe. The big enterprises all know this. That's why they keep them," she said.

Another reason, Heise added, is just how much money it would cost to change, and when they still work, there's just not the need. 

Where there will be a need, Global Knowledge's senior vice president Michael Fox said, is when the programmers currently in those roles start retiring during the next 10 to 15 years.

"That's going to be a huge opportunity to step up because those new mainframe skills aren't going to be traditional mainframe skills — they're also going to need web services, mobility, they're going to have to tie all that together."

2. Systems administrator

This is another area in which bigger trends like the cloud, virtualization, and even outsourcing and large consultancies are affecting the demand for these roles.

"I think some of the administrative roles around infrastructures in companies is waning as companies are moving to cloud computing," Reed said. "You see some of these roles where companies have people administering servers and systems, and computer hardware — as a lot of that moves to cloud computing or virtual computing environments, some of those roles are less important for certain organizations." 

Similarly, said Heise, there's always going to be a baseline need, but the proportions, from his perspective, do seem to be going down. In other cases, these jobs are moving from employee positions within a company to working for a consultancy that handles systems administration for many different organizations.

3. Help desk technicians

The role of the help desk technician is perhaps less prominent than it once was. For smaller companies, a more tech-savvy workforce, BYOD,  technology like Macs or Gmail, and outsourcing, means that the need to have designated individuals ready to troubleshoot is not as strong.

"The help desk continues to exist — but the job increasingly gets assigned to the 'new kid on the block' and is a kind of 'launch pad' into some other role in IT as soon as the person can get himself out [of the help desk]," said Shacklett.

Heise said that it has become harder to find candidates who are good fits for help desk roles in recent years. "Help desk is usually a very challenging role for us because finding people that are good enough to do it and aren't already moving into different things becomes a bit of a challenge," he said. As for the general level of demand, Heise said he wouldn't be surprised if companies "are looking to trim that type of support or service away in favor of a cheaper or easier alternative."

The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth of 17 percent for help desk analysts through 2022, but also noted that "a rise in cloud computing could increase the productivity of computer support specialists, slowing their growth at many firms."

4. SMB IT manager

Heise said he's experienced several instances where lower-ranking IT managers are getting passed over or reduced in favor of giving more responsibilities to a more senior manager.

"Every executive's perspective will be different, but when it comes down to it, when competition is tight, profits are tight, everybody wants to keep boosting their IT arena," he said.

One reason for the shift might come as managers are need to wear multiple hats instead of filling just one IT role. In other words, the new hire in marketing might be particularly tech-savvy, so instead of the company hiring a full-time IT manager, she has responsibility for IT in addition to her work in marketing.

Shacklett said she actually sees that trend resulting in an expansion for SMB IT managers. "Because the SMBs can't afford all the IT specialists and so they hire a 'journeyman manager' to try to cover all of their IT," she said.

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