NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Farewell and good riddance to 2009, a year in which a whopping 85% of big companies did away with across-the-board annual merit raises, according to a survey by Deloitte & Touche. Surprisingly, executives fared somewhat worse than the rank and file, with 66% of senior managers seeing either no increase in their pay or a salary reduction, versus 54% of employees in the same boat.
The year ahead looks slightly brighter. For one thing, more than half (54%) of companies that froze salaries in 2009 are planning a thaw over the next few months, according to a poll by compensation consultants Watson Wyatt. Meanwhile, 35% of employers that had reduced or cut 401(k) matching contributions expect to restore them in 2010 -- with 70% of them reinstating the matches at their original levels.
One reason for the changes: Almost 40% of the companies surveyed think their financial situation is beginning to improve, or at least isn't getting any worse, Watson Wyatt's researchers found, up from 27% back in August.
Even so, salary increases at most companies are unlikely to exceed 3%, notes a study by consultants Towers Perrin. That's certainly better than nothing, but it's still a step down from the nearly 4% median increase seen in the pre-recession days of 2007.
Some employers seem to be contemplating giving out stock instead of money. Despite the markets' roller coaster ride, a November poll of 200 companies by Charles Schwab found that 25% plan to boost stock plan benefits in the coming year.
So who is in the best position now to get a raise? The short answer: People whose skills are in demand because they serve a particular strategic purpose.
"Companies now want to invest in staff members with specific expertise who can help them capitalize on opportunities that are just emerging from all the economic turmoil," says Max Messmer, CEO of staffing giant Robert Half International.
In a recent look at the IT and finance industries, Robert Half researchers identified 10 fields where pay overall is steady or rising, and starting salaries in 2010 will be more generous than average. They are:
1. Tax accountant. For tax accountants with two to three years of big-company experience, and a track record of achieving sizable tax savings, starting salaries average $46,500 to $61,500.
2. Compliance director. New regulations and accounting rules are creating demand for compliance experts, who, even at small companies, can command starting pay of $83,750 to $108,500.
3. Credit manager/supervisor. Credit specialists, who can evaluate credit risk, manage delinquent accounts, and help improve cash flow, earn starting pay averaging between $42,500 and $57,500.
4. Senior financial analyst. Finance mavens skilled at finding ways to boost profitability start at $57,750 to $74,000.
In information technology, where pay has been even flatter than elsewhere lately, starting salaries in three areas are nevertheless on the rise:
1. Network administrator. Cloud computing, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and software as a service (SaaS) have made this role more complex and demanding lately. Starting pay: $54,500 to $80,250.
2. Information systems security manager. Protecting company data is more challenging all the time. Starting salaries range from $96,500 to $130,750.
3. Systems engineer. People who can help employers build and maintain tech support for a variety of new projects start at $64,250 to $93,250.
Administrative employees who can "multitask within teams that have been stretched thin" are in big demand, Robert Half's report says. Three jobs where pay will be rising in 2010:
1. Medical records clerk. Largely because of the complexities of transferring huge volumes of medical records online, skilled clerks' pay will start at $31,500.
2. Customer service representative. A 2009 study by Robert Half and CareerBuilder found that hiring managers consider customer service "most critical" to their companies' survival in this economy. Starting pay: $22,750 to $30,750.
3. Executive assistant. The ability to "wear many hats, support multiple managers, and adapt readily to change," the Robert Half salary survey says, will put 2010 starting pay at $35,000 to $47,000.
Happy New Year, everybody!