Bean counters make way for button pushers

Top IT graduates are highly sought after in the finance and retail sectors, as Britain's economic performance comes to rely on their skills. By Paul Gosling
Britain's IT industry needs to recruit an extra 50,000 skilled workers if it is to cope with the demands placed on it, according to a report published last week by the European Information Technology Observatory. Without more staff it is not just the sector that will suffer but the whole of British industry, so integral is IT now to the country's economic performance.

Many in the industry believe the European single currency is a much more difficult challenge than the more widely discussed Year 2000 crisis. Even without Britain's membership in the first wave of the Euro currency, all major British corporations trading in Europe will have to enable their systems to account for sterling and Euro transactions alongside each other.

Greg Liddington, director of specialist IT recruitment agency Parallel International, believes that the commercial consolidation that will accompany the single currency will itself bring a strong additional demand for IT graduates. This will be particularly true in the financial services and retail sectors, where corporations will move into new regions. The financial sector may also be involved in new privatisation issues in many countries that have previously lagged behind British experience.

There are tremendous opportunities for graduates - it has never been greater," says Mr Liddington. Graduates with the right skills mix are in the strongest position. Skills in demand, he says, are ability to programme in languages C++, Visual Basic and Delphi, familiarity with databases and ability to develop intranets.

Graduates who combine these IT skills with other professional qualifications stand the best chance of rising to senior management positions, suggests Mr Liddington. The strengthening of the European market will place greater value on languages, especially German, and fluency in three languages is regarded as helpful.

Banks prefer their graduates working in IT to have a sound understanding of the wider business environment, adds Mr Liddington. In particular, the collapse of Barings has illustrated the need for banks to have effective risk management systems, staffed by high-calibre people with strong IT skills and a thorough understanding of derivatives and other complex financial instruments.

According to specialist IT companies, too few graduates emerge from universities with the skills needed to walk into vacant jobs. A survey conducted last year for Microsoft found that only 20 per cent of IT managers, and just 13 per cent of corporate IT managers, believed that IT graduates were well equipped for the workplace. The survey confirmed the view that the biggest problem is in the finance sector, where there is a very high level of unfilled vacancies.

Offering large salaries is the usual method adopted to retain and recruit quality staff. Microsoft's Debbie Walsh says that this auction to attract good staff into the private sector is part of the reason why too many students are leaving university unsuited for their future work. "We have known for some time now that there is a serious IT gap," says Ms Walsh. "This research set out to look for causes and potential solutions. It has highlighted that business is really looking to education to solve the issue, yet this sector is ironically the worst hit by a shortage of IT skills."

The response of some IT companies is to start looking outside IT courses for the graduates who will do their IT jobs. Oracle is recruiting 180 graduates this year, having recruited 150 last year, to go into product development, training and consultancy. The company has concentrated on taking on science graduates, but increasingly is willing to take on graduates from other disciplines such as history and psychology if they can demonstrate that they have analytical minds, are articulate and are enthusiastic about IT.

Gay Brogden, recruitment director for Oracle in Europe, says: "Our priority is the best graduates who are enthusiastic about technology and what it can do, rather than an absolute technical ability - because we can train people in technological skills, but we can't train them to be enthusiastic about it. We would not preclude someone whose only involvement with technology had been part of a course, though the majority of our entrants have had a technical background."

The IT graduate is in a happy position in today's commercial environment. As Tom Lovell, manager of Reed Graduates, says: "Top quality IT graduates are now in the enviable position to be able to pick and choose their employment. In fact, research from Reed Graduates shows that graduates with an IT degree are three times as likely to get a permanent job within a year of leaving university than the average graduate."