Fast track to high-tech jobs

Students are being groomed for the IT industry before graduating, writes Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online
Computing graduates already command high starting salaries. For the most successful, six-figure sums are possible three or four years after university.

Good IT graduates are in short supply, and this is pushing up pay. Growing markets, especially the Internet, are providing new openings. At the same time, vast projects including preparation for the European single currency, and working to eliminate the "millennium bug", which threatens to send IT systems haywire in the year 2000, are attracting skilled staff, from programmers to systems analysts.

However, industry sources admit they are worried. In the UK, employers estimate that there are between 35,000 and 50,000 vacancies. Without action, those figures could rise to 150,000 empty jobs by the millennium. The picture is, if anything, worse across the Atlantic. There, IT companies admit to a staff shortage touching a quarter of a million vacancies.

This is good news for computer science students, but bad news for industry. If IT wage bills soar too far, companies may put off projects that could win orders or boost productivity. They might even neglect to take the steps they need to prevent millennium problems.

Education is the obvious answer. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 56,800 students were enrolled on undergraduate computing degrees in 1995/96, the latest year for which figures are available. Numbers will have risen since.

The IT industry needs graduates it knows are ready to go straight into the workplace. Graduates, for their part, want qualifications that demonstrate their knowledge of the latest software and hardware technologies. That is the logic behind Grasp (graduate recruitment academic skills programme), a joint venture between American software giant Microsoft, and Napier University, Edinburgh.

Grasp gives Napier's computing students access to Microsoft's own qualifications, the Microsoft Certified Professional programme (MCP). MCP is a commercial training programme covering Microsoft products such as the Windows family of operating systems, and the company's Visual Basic language. MCP courses are normally taken by people already working in IT.

At Napier, which is running a Grasp pilot for a year, the approach is different. The university offers three MCP modules: Windows NT, Windows 95, and SQL. Students who enrol on GRASP - it is optional - take any of the three modules as part of their degrees, which are either Computing/Electrical or Computer Engineering.

The academic course covers 60 per cent of the MCP syllabus in each module. Students have to make up the rest in their own time. For the pilot, Microsoft is supplying teaching materials free of charge and also training lecturers to teach the MCP modules.

The private study element is significant, coming on top of a full degree course. But, according to Professor Lesley Beddie, head of computing studies at Napier, there is already plenty of interest in the scheme. One reason is that students realise that an MCP qualification will give them the edge in the job market. "It shows an employer that the student is capable of doing it, rather than just talking about it," she says.

The university is working with Microsoft on modules where there is already a significant amount of common content. According to Professor Beddie, it is not a question of Microsoft coming in and dictating how the university teaches, but one of co-operation. "It is not as if we have said Microsoft is allowed to write our courses. We have been true to our courses, and where they match, we will do it."

Even so, Napier hopes to add another three modules to its MCP scheme soon. From Microsoft's point of view, the Grasp programme is less about addressing its own recruitment needs and more about acting on the shortage of computing professionals in the wider market. Microsoft employs relatively few technical staff. Nor is it heavily involved in consultancy. Instead, it relies on third-party IT firms, or "channel partners", to deliver Microsoft products to users.

The channel partners are one area where Grasp graduates should find jobs. The other is with end-users themselves: the banks, insurance companies, and manufacturing businesses that increasingly use Microsoft operating systems and applications.

"More and more of our corporate customers are looking for people with skills, and ideally some sort of benchmark or stamp of approval," explains Neil Holloway, Microsoft deputy managing director.

Microsoft is well aware of the skills problems facing the IT industry. According to Mr Holloway, some specialists with qualifications in Microsoft products are commanding salaries of pounds 120,000 a year. In the longer term, high fees and a shortage of staff does little to encourage customers to use Microsoft software.

The universities, Mr Holloway believes, provide a fast track to closing the skills gap. "The best way is to go out to the graduates and train them, rather than paying the high prices some of these skills attract," he says.

Microsoft is also working with other universities to create Academic Authorised Training Centres. These will offer MCP courses, but unlike at Napier, they are not integrated into degrees. Computing students are not the only group that stand to benefit from the premium MCP status commands. At Napier, Lesley Beddie believes the programme could extend to students in other disciplines.

However, she stresses that the MCP units do not represent a departure from the principle that degrees teach people to be adaptable, and able to think for themselves. "Students have to be able to swap technologies. We don't just want people who just speak Microsoft."