Networking is the highest IT skill in demand, according to a new survey from the Software Human Research Council.

IDC polled 414 senior IT professionals across Canada on the IT skills their organisations most needed. The top five, in order, were: TCP/IP, proficiency with Windows XP, Windows 2000/ME, security skills and knowledge of Microsoft's SQL server.

These results compare to a similar 2002 IDC survey of 252 senior IT professionals and HR professionals where the top skills sought were: Microsoft SQL Server, security skills, Windows NT Server, Microsoft Exchange and wide area networking.

Skills needed by medium and large companies fall into the areas of infrastructure, reliability and security, said Julie Kaufman, director at IDC Canada. Additionally, because three of the top five skills relate to Microsoft products, IT workers will need to have some level of Microsoft skills to succeed, she added.

While the demand for IT skills is down overall since the 2002 study, the demand for networking skills has increased while the demand for messaging skills has decreased. Other findings include: an increased need for IT professionals familiar with Windows XP, and a slight increase in demand for Linux experts in large companies, greatly increasing for smaller companies.

The need for enterprise application skills with products from SAP, Oracle and Siebel has dropped considerably since 2002. Also, Web development skills have dropped across the board with the exception of .Net remaining flat. Development tool and database skills have also declined.

Just because a company has increased its IT budget doesn't mean it will spend more on skills development or new hires, Kaufman added. The study found that companies with higher IT budgets in 2004 over 2003 only have a modest increase in demand for IT skills and tend to have network-focused requirements. Firms with smaller IT budgets in 2004 over 2003 have a smaller need for IT skills overall and a higher demand for those skilled in Windows XP, Microsoft Exchange and Visual Basic.

Financial services companies had the greatest demand for IT skills, while manufacturing had the least. Infrastructure companies, such as media outlets, had a greater demand for Windows skills, while the public sector still looked for employees proficient with COBOL.

The number of companies reporting a lack of qualified candidates for IT positions has decreased since2002. Only 25.2 percent of companies said a skills shortage existed, 22.5 percent said they weren't sure, while 52.3 percent said no. In 2002, 32.1 per cent said they had a skills shortage, 33.3 percent couldn't decide and 34.6 percent said no.