Even as some of the world's biggest IT employers trim staff to withstand the recession, wages for those who remain employed in tech appear to be holding up.
Pay for IT jobs is buoyant at companies that are eliminating staff since employees who keep their jobs "often are more senior people who cost a bit more" and work longer hours, says Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis at PayScale, a Web site that gathers information on salary info. "I wouldn't expect to see any downward trends in pay in these jobs." PayScale shared its information exclusively with BusinessWeek.com.
IT salaries are especially high in such markets as London and San Francisco, where big-name tech companies employ a large portion of the workforce, according to PayScale, which based its analysis on information entered on its site in 2008. Workers in major tech centers command earnings that average up to 33% more than the U.S. median, PayScale says.
The Valley Is Still Tops
Of the five U.S. markets included in the PayScale survey, San Francisco topped the list of average wages in each of 10 different job titles, including software developer and IT project manager. In the Bay Area, home to such Internet giants as Google (GOOG) and computer makers such as Apple (AAPL), software development managers ranked highest in pay, at $136,000 per year. The lowest-paid IT jobs in San Francisco are help desk specialists, who earn $53,300 a year, PayScale says.
Outside Silicon Valley, pay tends to be tied to demand in local industries. In Seattle, home to Microsoft (MSFT) and Amazon.com (AMZN), software developers make an average of $88,400, higher than in most places.
The salaries tracked by PayScale may not remain high in coming months, as laid-off workers find new IT jobs, in some cases settling for lower wages, Lee says. "I expect annual increases will be much more modest" next year, he says. Also weighing on increases is a noticeable decline in the size of bonuses reported on the site, PayScale says.
Growing Government Positions
Overall, new job postings are down about 35% since last year on Dice, an online job board for technology positions around the country. According to Tom Silver, Dice's chief marketing officer, new postings on the site for jobs in the Silicon Valley area have dropped about 50%, to 2,700, since January 2008.
One market not covered in PayScale's research is faring well on Dice. In the Washington-Baltimore corridor, job postings were flat at about 7,400, roughly the same level as a year ago. "This is attributed to the growing number of government or government-related positions" in tech, Silver says.
Outside the U.S., PayScale found stark differences in IT wages. In five tech-heavy markets—London, Sydney, Toronto, Singapore, and Bangalore—pay is highest in London. There, IT project managers make $107,000, a 30% premium over the median U.S. pay for the same position.
Meanwhile, in Bangalore, India, a help desk specialist makes only $10,700, or close to one-fourth what an average U.S. worker would make in the same role.
Sums Are Relative
Of course, IT job seekers have more to consider than just potential salary when deciding where to move. In tough times, it's especially important to consider the cost of living in a big city. PayScale found that experienced IT workers in Austin, Tex., have their median pay adjusted for cost of living, since about 90¢ has the same buying power in that city that $1 has, on average, across the country. By comparison, San Franciscans pay $1.74 to buy the same goods that the rest of the country buys with $1.
Moving from a low-wage area to one where pay is higher can sometimes work against employees. Explains Charles Geoly, managing director of executive recruiting firm Russell Reynolds: "If you have an individual who lives in Arizona, a place relatively hard hit by the downturn, and he or she is being recruited to Boston, a place that's not been hit quite as bad, the relative drop in equity value increases the switching cost for the employer." On the whole, Geoly says demand for his firm's services were down in 2008, but companies are still willing to pay nearly what they used to in order to fill their top posts with the best candidates.
Even during a recession, relative pay is less important to some job seekers than landing a satisfying job. According to PayScale's Lee, software developers who build video games at startups are less likely to be paid as much as someone who, for example, builds a new payroll system at a big corporation. "A lot of gaming companies tend to pay a little less than companies like IBM (IBM)," Lee says, "mostly because it's the kind of work people really like to be a part of."
Click here for a city-by-city comparison of how IT salaries stack up around the world.
Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.