Shopping for a career in IT? Try a supermarket

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Computing degrees have been passports to good jobs for many years, but as supermarkets become more sophisticated, retailing is yet another industry crying out for IT graduates. Michael Greenwood finds out why.

Top retail companies are increasingly looking for graduates who know their fruit and vegetables from their EPOS, and their Millennium Bug from their loyalty cards. Technology is dramatically changing the face of retailing. Marks & Spencer has invested pounds 600m in information technology over the past 10 years and Tesco now has an IT department with more than 1,000 staff.

Despite such a commitment to in-house IT, Michael Day, careers officer at Oxford University, says that for many IT graduates, retailing doesn't even cross their minds.

"IT students will say they want to join an IT specialist like IBM or ICL, but they do not think of companies like Tesco or Sainsbury," he says. "We have to alert them to the fact that there are very good careers to be made in the IT departments of retail companies. Graduates should not assume the only area to be in is consulting for big computer firms. Retailers are becoming so large and IT-dependent that staff in their IT departments are like internal consultants. The range of work for them is enormous.

"Working in IT for a big City firm may bring good financial rewards, but for many money is not the only attraction. Often the overall package from retailers can be very good. The starting salary for IT graduates with the big retailers is around pounds 19,000-pounds 20,000 a year, which is not bad. They are certainly not poor relations.

"You don't have to want to manage a supermarket to be successful in retail IT, you just need a love of IT. You get lawyers working for Shell, because they love law, not oil."

Asda source their IT work from outside companies like IBM, but many retailers, including Marks & Spencer, are now recruiting direct, with graduate schemes giving an option to go straight into the IT side.

Jit Jethwa, graduate recruitment manager for M&S, says the rate of change in retailing is making IT graduates essential, and it is possible for them to be in project management within six years of joining the company. "Not only are we expanding in what we sell, but we are expanding our stores globally. From Hong Kong to the US we cannot run the business without IT."

Melanie Wooding Jones, personnel and development executive for Tesco, claims that while the Millennium Bug and European Monetary Union are high- profile IT challenges, there will continue to be a massive investment in IT.

"We now have over 1,000 IT staff, and for IT graduates who join us, there is a huge flexibility in our programme."

She said one of the most exciting areas of IT development was the loyalty card schemes.

"The Clubcard is very important to both the customer and the company. If you are a vegetarian, you don't want us to send you meat vouchers, and if you buy eco-friendly products we can identify that. But for a database as sophisticated as that to work, we need good IT staff."

David Bundy, resourcing advisor at Sainsbury, believes that one advantage of working for the IT department of a retailer can be the satisfaction of seeing your work used in an everyday environment.

"If you are a consultant, you may work on a piece of software and never see the results. For some projects at Sainsbury's, our IT staff will go right to the shop floor to see the systems in operation," he says.

"This is much more rewarding than working for a consultancy where you can spend months on a project and never see what happens to your efforts. Working in-house means you see your work making a difference to your company."

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