Just a few years ago, technology mavens were viewed as little more than overhead for financial services companies. And their middling salaries reflected this attitude.

But with pressures mounting to leverage technology for competitive advantage, technology professionals have ascended to prominence-and high pay.

Indeed, headhunters and hiring executives agree that prospects for a well-paid career in information technology have never been better. This holds true, they say, whether the job seekers are intent on staying in financial services or willing to take their skills elsewhere.

The figures are striking. The average systems analyst employed by a financial services company earned $62,000 in 1993, according to the KPA Group, a New York-based recruiting and consulting firm. By 1997, such an analyst was making $80,000 a year.

Average yearly salaries for data processing managers rose during that same period from $75,000 to $90,000, while computer supervisors saw their average increase from $60,000 to $70,000.

"We're seeing incredible growth in these salaries," said Len Adams, executive vice president and chief operating officer at KPA Group.

This growth is not limited to financial services. "Automate or die" is a battle cry being heard in all industries today, making people skilled in the newest computer technologies into hot commodities no matter where they are or what industry sectors catch their fancy.

"The more current you are with technology, the higher the salary you can command," said Paul Lemerise, executive vice president of TruServ Corp., Chicago.

Mr. Lemerise speaks from experience. Having started his career on the financial side of an engineering company, Mr. Lemerise, over the past 30 years or so, has made his way through a series of jobs in financial services, retailing, and distribution, honing his technology skills at each step. "I have done every job you can think of in information services," said Mr. Lemerise.

In 1996, he joined TruServ, a cooperative of hardware stores with $4.5 billion in annual sales, as senior vice president and chief information officer. Within three months, he was promoted to his current position.

As executive vice president, Mr. Lemerise now oversees the cooperative's operations side, as well as about 80% of its merger activities.

Mergers, acquisitions, and operational consolidations are not new to Mr. Lemerise, who says he has been displaced from more than one job because of them. But with each new job, Mr. Lemerise said, he was able to acquire new skills-in technology as well as business-that enhanced his marketability.

According to John Jazylo, senior vice president and head of the information technology practice at Skott/Edwards Consultants, a recruiting firm based in Morristown, N.J., skill in the latest technologies is perhaps the single greatest driver of salaries. "All the new technology is driving up salaries, especially among younger workers, and suppressing the older technologies and older workers, and keeping their compensation flat," said Mr. Jazylo.

Greg Scileppi, executive director, RHI Consulting, Menlo Park, Calif., said the focus on current technologies was particularly acute in financial services. "They are on the leading edge, in terms of implementing new systems," he said.

So the pay these organizations offer workers skilled in technology like client/server and Internet-intranet development-tends to be at the higher end of the scale.

"It will continue as long as technologies continue to advance, and as long as banks and other financial services firms continue to use information technology to gain competitive advantage," Mr. Scileppi said.

A survey of chief information officers conducted last summer by RHI, which helps place information technology professionals, found that 32% of chief information officers cited networking as the area experiencing the most growth. Internet-intranet development was second, with 18% calling it the fastest area of job expansion.

But professionals with knowledge of older technologies will also be in demand for the next few years. There is plenty of work for those who can help ensure that systems built on older technologies won't crash when the year 2000 arrives.

"They're pivotal; they're absolutely critical," said Reuben Tatz, chief administrative officer at Natwest Markets North America, New York.

State and federal regulators, noted Mr. Tatz, have mandated that financial services companies modify computer systems by the end of this year to handle the date change. The demand for those skilled in older technologies is not apt to slacken with the regulatory deadline, because systems glitches are apt to crop up for several years. "Who knows what the aftermath will be?" he said.

Still, Mr. Tatz said his organization, like others in financial services, has had to focus a good deal of attention on new technologies, as well as shoring up the old.

Professionals skilled in technologies like client/ server, and the intricacies of interfacing off-the-shelf software to existing systems, he said, are as important to Natwest as those who can work out year-2000 bugs.

It's a change in attitude, especially for financial services companies, said Mr. Tatz. "In the past, many companies were guilty of underinvesting in the (technology) infrastructure," he said. Not so today. "You've got to automate all up and down the product line," he said.

If experts come to the job with an understanding of the business as well, that's fine. But that industry-specific understanding, most experts agree, is only a secondary consideration, whether the industry is financial services or distribution or merchandising.

"It's a lot easier to teach someone merchandising than it is to fill in the technology piece," said Mr. Lemerise. "And it's a wonderful opportunity for them, because they get to learn something new, and the users are more than willing to teach these people about their specific business."

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