Fast Track: IT recruits are in demand

IT is still rapidly expanding, writes Lynne Curry
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Indy Lifestyle Online
This time last year, more than half the employers in a comprehensive survey by the National Computing Centre were expecting to take on more IT staff. But this time last year, there was no talk of recession. How would a slump affect one of the boom industries of the Nineties?

Other people's headaches and nightmares have been only fodder for IT people. Pay rates - especially for contract staff - have risen way above inflation levels as panicking companies have called for help with the millennium bug, and commerce has scratched its head over European monetary union.

But these are specific, finite projects. What then are the prospects for a career in IT? While there has been talk of dramatic Europe-wide shortages of people capable of implementing the changes new technology offers, will it still be possible to walk in to a job with a degree in - say - English literature?

IT is probably one of the most recession-proof industries, with rapid expansion in different areas making up for possible downturns in others. Although the mad rate rises of the past couple of years are likely to calm down, industry insiders say that IT is not a luxury that can be dispensed with. High earnings of the contract force could fall, but it is unlikely that the industry as a whole will see large redundancies.

"We are not anticipating a recession", says Steve Holloway, personnel services manager with computer services company Computeraid, which specialises in outsourcing and managed services.

"Most industries are now so interdependent on IT technology that they have no choice. If we go into a recessionary phase, you can cut spending on many things but it would be difficult to cut IT spending, or on IT- related projects, because of the loss of competitive advantage. Bill Gates will continue to produce ever more powerful applications. He's not going to stop.''

Peter Poulain, a partner in A&P Computer Services, which places permanent and contract staff, says that recession will inevitably drive down rates, but there is enough expansion in the IT market to protect it from the worst. "There is still a demand for people to deal with Year 2000 and EMU and a strong demand for skills for using the internet. Companies are driven by IT and there are predictions that by the year 2002, there will be a shortage of 200,000 IT people across Europe.''

Despite this, Mr Poulain says, there is a growing preference for graduates with relevant degrees, and they will have the widest choice of jobs. This is a change, he says, from the days when any degree was welcomed. "Generally speaking, it's either a BSc or a sandwich course. A sandwich year is ideal because if you're a computer company, you're saving on three or six months' training.''

Brian Mulligan, managing director of Easynet, a telephone company and internet service provider, agrees that rapid expansion in all areas of IT will help it to weather any recession. "The market for telecommunications is still growing quickly, with voice and data starting to merge, and with new methods of working with mobile phones. We still have difficulty in recruiting for our system group, the combining of switch and packet switch technologies.''

Mr Mulligan also concurs that companies like his, looking for their own staff, are biased towards graduates in at least broadly sympathetic subjects. "We do require a certain basic knowledge because we don't have the time to train people from scratch. We would tend towards degrees in computer sciences or physics, where the basic concepts are understood, and we do require people to be technically aware.''

The National Computing Centre's last published survey shows that the utilities is one of the sectors expecting the highest growth in IT staff over the next two years - second only to the IT sector itself. It is expecting to increase its systems and support staff by over 20 per cent. Financial institutions expect to take on 16 per cent more IT people; distribution 14 per cent; engineering 11.5 per cent; the public sector 10 per cent; and manufacturing 9 per cent.

There are significant differences between the regions of the country. London, the South East, the South West, Wales and Scotland are way in front of the Midlands, the North and Northern Ireland in anticipating a need for more IT staff.

The fastest-growing need is for networking skills and technical support skills, both expected to grow by 20 per cent over the next two years. Then come systems analysts, user support people and systems developers, with only a tiny increase in the demand for managers. The only sector in which a fall is predicted is that of operations staff.

One of the major attractions of IT for graduates and young people has been incomes hard to equal in any other sector but inevitably, a recession would affect that - not before time, in the eyes of some. "I think it has become totally overheated in terms of the rates that are being asked,'' said one manager, who had spent the morning trying to find a Sybase expert. "We phoned 15 agencies and only one expert - he was asking pounds 2,500 a week.''

fast track IT fair

The Fast Track IT Fair takes place on Thursday 22 October at the New Connaught Rooms, Great Queen Street, London WC2 (near Marble Arch) from 11am - 7pm. Admission is free.

Exhibitors include ACC Telecom, A&P Computer Services, Arthur Andersen, Cegelec Projects, Computeraid Services, Easynet, ECM Selections, General Electric Co, Itanex, IT Recruitment Network, McGregor Boyle, NHS Consortium, Standard Chartered Bank, Syslogic.

Further information on the Independent website: Fair hotline: 0171 510 6158