Companies are being warned not to neglect their IT workforce during the downturn, despite the fact that IT management are battling to retain skilled IT employees and attract new talent, all the while keeping their staff budgets in line.

But a Gartner survey of 325 US companies found that the majority do not plan to add staff in the coming months, after it polled CIOs and IT leaders in March 2009.

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed indicated that IT hiring would be put on hold until the end of February 2010, while more than one-third of those asked said they expect to increase head count in the same timeframe. The problem, according to the research firm, is that despite the need to contain costs, IT departments need to continue to update skills and add staff to help advance their companies' business.

"Considering that workforce-related spending is the largest part of the IT budget, one of the primary challenges for CIOs and HR leaders for the remainder of 2009 and into 2010 will be finding ways to control labour costs while engaging and retaining the workforce," said Lily Mok, research vice president at Gartner, in a press release.

"Since it will still take time for the economy to establish a new normal, the impact of this recession will continue to be felt on an organisation's bottom line, as well as on the overall job market. This could cause companies to consider making further cuts in workforce-related spending."

Additional cuts, despite the budgetary need, might be a mistake, Gartner suggests, considering certain IT skills remain in demand despite numerous IT professionals looking for work during the downturn. Because skills such as Oracle, SAP, Java EE, Microsoft .Net, SOA, Java and PeopleSoft continue to be sought after, IT managers find it difficult to fill enterprise architect, database administrator, project managers, ERP programmer/analysts, Internet/Web architects and Web application programmer positions.

"The issue isn't about the number of candidates available for hire, but rather their quality and skill profiles," Mok said.

Even companies keeping current staff levels in place are cutting benefits for IT workers. According to the Gartner survey, there will be an "across-the-board reduction (IT and non-IT) in salary increase budgets for 2009 and 2010." The median IT salary increase for 2009 will be 3 percent in 2009 and remain there throughout 2010, Gartner says. The reduction in compensation and potential benefits coupled with additional workload could stress the current IT workforce at many companies, the research firms suggests, and IT leaders need to be aware of retaining critical talent to better recover from the recession.

"IT and HR leaders should learn from painful experiences of the past and make a conscious effort to not repeat the same mistakes," said Diane Berry, managing vice president at Gartner, in a statement. "Make employee engagement and retention top priority because it will be key to ensure that critical talent stays long after the economy rebounds."