Help wanted: Hackers

By Anne Fisher, contributor

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I'm a college freshman trying to decide on a major, and I'm kind of confused. I really love computers and the computer science courses I've taken so far. I'd like to major in the field, but people tell me I won't be able to find a job in it.

Everything in the U.S. runs on computers now, so how can that be? It doesn't make sense. If I do major in computer science, what are my chances of finding a good job? --West Coast Geek

Dear WCG: The U.S. tech job market has certainly seen more than its share of trouble over the past decade or so, and it isn't out of the woods yet. Yes, planned job cuts in the technology sector -- which includes telecommunications as well as computer and electronics firms -- are down 73% from a year ago, according to Chicago outplacement giant Challenger, Gray & Christmas. And in the first three months of 2010, tech firms announced 22,338 layoffs, versus 84,217 in the same quarter in 2009.

That's welcome news, but "unfortunately, it doesn't mean a tech-jobs turnaround," says CEO John Challenger. "Hiring has been slow to recover, and many of the tech-sector workers who are still employed are working harder for less pay."

Bonuses and benefits are down while work hours have increased, according to a 2010 salary survey released by Computerworld magazine earlier this month. On average, salaries have risen a measly 0.7% since last year.

Discouraging as all that sounds, majoring in computer science would still be a smart move, especially if you concentrate on getting expertise in cybersecurity and become a network administrator. As technology, especially mobile tech, gets more and more sophisticated, demand for network administrators will rise 23% by 2018, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- far outpacing the average for all occupations.

Talkback: Is computer science a good field to enter now? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

Right now, more network administration jobs are available than there are qualified people to fill them, according to a new study from Cisco Systems. The company introduced its CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Experts) certification program over 15 years ago, and has since bestowed the CCIE designation on about 20,000 techies. The study projects that number "will double over the next 4 to 5 years, now that so many social media tools and technologies exist that can scale to global audiences."

Within the network administration field, the most sought-after skills will be those related to network security. "That's because security must be baked into all elements of the digital infrastructure for critical networks to work and for people to have confidence in using them," the report notes.

Cybersecurity "has become white-hot in the last 24 months, and there is a growing sense of urgency among government officials and technology executives," says Tom Silver, a senior vice president at IT job board "Efforts to plug holes in network protection, keep personal data secure, and make national security information safe from cyberattack are being hampered by a lack of experienced talent."

Techies with security expertise can command a salary premium of 20% or more over candidates who lack those skills, he adds.

Silver says the talent shortage is so acute that some organizations have begun trying to develop a security-savvy workforce a decade in advance. One example: The Air Force Association has begun encouraging teenagers to consider security careers by sponsoring the CyberPatriot competition, which pits teams of high-school students against one another as they defend virtual networks from simulated outside attacks.

Of course, some IT professionals are already well-versed in cybersecurity, and have earned certifications like Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), awarded by global nonprofit (ISC)2. "But at the end of the day, the pipeline is still being filled with the first generation of technology professionals who have the option of making full careers out of cybersecurity," says Silver.

You're a member of that generation, so full speed ahead: Focus your studies on keeping networks safe, and you should have no trouble getting a job once you graduate.

Talkback: How strong is the IT job market now? Does your company need cypersecurity experts? Tell us on Facebook below. To top of page