Let's face it, the past year has been tough on the IT industry. Although leading indicators show the economy to be improving, the news remains bleak for IT professionals. The harsh reality is that when times are bad, the IT industry is one of the first to take hits and one of the last to recover.

When looking for a job in this type of market, experience plays a more important role than certification. Nevertheless, many out-of-work IT professionals face the realization that their job skills have stagnated and that their education must catch up. The double-edged sword is that you must look for ways to gain more experience, particularly if you're trying to break into the IT industry, but you also must be diligent about your education and certifications so that your skill set remains as marketable as possible. If you're looking for work in a job market that's flooded with well-qualified people, you want to be as nimble as possible.

Diversification is a term that commonly arises when you discuss retirement portfolios, but you can take a similar approach to your skill set. Obviously, certain high-end IT specialists will always be in demand because few others possess their skills, but the vast majority of IT professionals aren't in that situation. Look for skills that will complement those you already have and examine job postings to learn what types of skills are in demand. You can also read industry publications to get a feel for where technology is going and visit IT discussion forums such as CertTutor.net Live! to network with other IT professionals. For example, consider some ways that a Windows administrator (e.g., one who works with Windows 2000 or Windows NT 4.0) might diversify his or her skill set to gain an edge in the job market:

  • Learn multiple OS platforms, concentrating on systems integration. For example, learn Linux and a UNIX OS such as Sun Microsystems' Solaris and become an expert at making heterogeneous environments work. Linux+ is a good certification to start with, and Sun offers multiple Solaris certifications. Novell NetWare still has a significant piece of the market, so consider the CNA and CNE certifications.
  • Gain network-engineering skills to accompany the systems-engineering skills you already possess. Cisco Systems' Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA) are good options to begin with; so is Computing Technology Industry Association's (CompTIA's) Network+ certification.
  • Become an expert in a server-application category. For example, become a messaging specialist by learning Microsoft Exchange Server, Lotus Notes, and GroupWise. Alternatively, add database skills by studying Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle. Try not to concentrate on specific products as much as platforms and broad application categories.
  • Learn about the hardware that Win2K Server and NT Server run on. Compaq, IBM, and other vendors offer hardware certifications. But even more important than certifying in a vendor’s product line is learning about server concepts such as storage arrays, clustering, SMP, and redundant systems. Become more than the person who deals with the network OSs—become the person who can design and implement server solutions.

As you can see, many possibilities exist for the average Windows administrator. Other jobs require different skills, but in most cases, you can map out skills to complement your existing ones instead of heading in a whole new direction. This step not only makes the best use of the time you spend studying and certifying, but also maximizes the value of your current skill set by concentrating your skills into a field of study, which is more useful than having a hodge-podge of skills that don’t work well together.

The economy isn't especially IT friendly right now, so IT professionals need to be even more diligent than usual about maintaining their skills and being able to react quickly to market changes. As the job market recovers, a specialized but flexible skill set puts you in a position to succeed.