Graduates into IT: If you speak a language, you can name your price

Companies are keen to recruit multicultural workforces, and graduates are encouraged to think internationally. Stephen Pritchard reports

Information technology is a global business, and demand is growing for graduates who are willing to develop a global career. The largest multinational firms have the resources to run global recruitment programmes and international management training schemes. But, in an industry where small start-ups can quickly become major players, even IT companies with just a few hundred staff are putting more emphasis on hiring graduates who have the linguistic and cultural awareness, as well as the technical skills, to take up a post overseas.

Visit the headquarters of any one of the large IT groups, whether it is in Paris, Munich, Amsterdam or the M4 corridor, and it is not unusual to hear several foreign languages being spoken. Sales teams, technical support staff and engineers increasingly serve Europe-wide markets from bases in a single country.

Microprocessor giant Intel, for example, has its European operations in two locations: Swindon and Munich. In both offices, graduates from multiple nationalities work together in product-based teams, whether it is networking, hardware or microprocessors.

"We have a specific requirement that graduates have to be willing to travel," explains Melanie Andrews, Intel's graduate recruitment manager for Europe. Intel graduates might be hired in their native country, and immediately relocated. Some 30 per cent of staff at Swindon are "international hires". "It makes the atmosphere exciting and dynamic," Andrews says.

Increasingly, IT graduates see their careers in international terms. "A lot of them want to travel, and then decide where to settle down," Andrews says. "They gain exposure to different cultures. The vast majority are keen to gain international experience because even if they go back to their home countries, they have that experience under their belts."

Alberto Spinelli, 27, has a degree in electronics from the Polytechnic di Milano, and joined Intel on its Recent College Graduate programme. Although he applied to Intel's Milan office, he was offered a job in Swindon in the networking division. His first job, in sales support, involved liaison between the Italian field staff and the Swindon team. He now works in marketing, assisting a European product manager.

Spinelli plans to stay in the UK for now, but he is open minded. "The company is quite dynamic, and there are opportunities in other offices," he says. "They could be in other European countries, or in the US."

Even where a company hires on a country-by-country basis, working overseas is still an option. At Motorola, each business handles its own recruitment, and graduates are generally hired to work in their own country. There are, though, some notable exceptions. One is the company's Cadre 2000 programme, which aims to hire graduates from specific nationalities to work in emerging markets. Currently, Motorola is focusing on Eastern Europe.

Once a graduate joins Motorola, however, working and travelling abroad are definite options. The company runs a "transcultural competences" programme to prepare staff for work on international teams. If Motorola graduates want to work abroad themselves, this will be taken into account during career development sessions. Each Motorola employee fills in a questionnaire every quarter, where they can suggest how they would like to develop their careers.

"If you are a skilled person, your career path is important, whether in your own country or beyond," explains Mark Durrant, UK corporate communications manager at Motorola. "Most of us find that teams with a mix of nationalities and cultures are much more rich in their approach to their work."

Graduates can find overseas postings in most areas of IT, including manufacturing, systems, software and communications. The Internet, though, is a particular area of growth. UK- and US-based Internet service providers are setting up European operations. The result is more staff movement, both into Europe and across the Atlantic.

UUNet runs the Pipex Internet service in the UK, and is now part of the US group Worldcom. UUNet now has operations in several European countries, including a large network operations centre being set up in Holland.

"There is more and more international work, and we would expect a lot of the people moving to Europe to be graduates," explains Paul Oakley, UUNet's head of personnel. In particular, he expects engineers from the UK NOC, in Cambridge, to go to Holland.

UUNet does not have a graduate training programme but instead hires graduates for specific vacancies. The company's European operations are small but growing, and they are supported both from Cambridge and the United States. There is a shortage of Internet engineers in Europe. Inevitably, some vacancies will be filled by UK staff.

In the IT industry, employers emphasise technical skills, personality and management potential more than an ability in foreign languages. However, language skills are only a plus when it comes to applications. As the market for fast-track graduate positions becomes more international, British graduates without those skills could even be disadvantaged. Engineers and computer scientists from France or Italy, for example, cannot graduate without a good score in their English exams. Most UK degrees in IT have little or no provision for formal language teaching.

Recruiters say that some British computing graduates omit their language skills altogether on applications. This is a mistake. "If you have a graduate with a second language, it will set them out," says Paul Oakley at UUNet.

Graduates should say that they want to work overseas when they apply for jobs. "It is a question of letting employers know that they want to travel. Because we have more demand, we will be able to satisfy them," Oakley predicts.

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