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It's not just for techies, you know

A future in IT is open to graduates of all disciplines.
Monosyllabic techies with thick glasses and square eyes? Information technology, or IT, may not have the most glamorous of reputations, but it does have financial appeal. Some graduates fetch salaries in the region of pounds 35,000. What's more, it is becoming increasingly recognised that it's not the nerds nest we once assumed it to be. And jobs are abundant.

"We are looking for university graduates from any degree discipline, combined with technical - but more importantly - interpersonal skills," says John Lincoln, graduate recruitment manager at Sema Group, who echoes the requirements of a growing number of IT employers.

Prospective employees at Sema Group have to complete a computer programming aptitude test. But, surprising for many graduates, the test doesn't require prior knowledge of programming; someone with, say, a history degree can also pass the test.

"In terms of prospects," Mr Lincoln explains, "Everyone starts as a programmer and then, if they want, move into areas like project management or take on a more commercial role."

Anne-Marie Martin, director of the University of London careers service, stresses that nowadays it is chiefly small and medium sized companies where a computing degree is still required. "They want someone who can walk in and be operative from day one," she explains. "Then there are the IT consultancies. They will tend to look for people with some IT qualifications, but they also take on other graduates and train them. Thirdly, there are the big companies and large entrepreneurs, who are looking in the long term to take people in and train them. They tend to take graduates from any degree, as long as they can prove some sort of competence, such as on the Internet, and are not frightened of computers."

Nevertheless, although British universities are turning out more computer science graduates than ever - and employers are increasingly offering training to graduates from alternative disciplines - there are still not enough applicants to meet the demand. According to a recent survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, only 11.2 per cent of its 600 members reported that they had no difficulties in filling IT vacancies. And the growth of the Internet, a more computerised work-place, and short- term problems like the Millennium bug, mean the problem is a pressing one. Anne-Marie Martin explains how one large manufacturer, which recently advertised 10 IT vacancies for graduates of all disciplines, received just three applicants.

An IT-job, adds Ms Martin, can be a way into a company; a stepping stone for moving on to different jobs in the same organisation. It is, however, always wise to check out the attitude towards such moves with prospective employers. Jackie Carling, graduate recruitment manager for IT at NatWest, for instance, reveals cynicism about such intentions. "If we give them that sort of training, we look for people who want to do this sort of work. They have fairly technical roles and it is quite difficult to move across."

This year, NatWest are recruiting 80 graduates for IT jobs, from all degree disciplines. The training course lasts between two and 11 weeks. Dipa Billimoria, 22, who joined NatWest in July 1997 with a maths degree, says: "I didn't have any programming background at all, and the training was brilliant."

Ms Billimoria didn't plan on a career in IT, but became keen when she undertook a short course in using spreadsheets as part of her degree. "The job's been better than I'd expected. The environment is good, people are friendly and the work is quite enjoyable. It is not like I work in front of the screen all day. It's also about working with people and liaising with the business team."

Everyone is assigned to a project, and works through the project cycle right from the design stage when we talk to the business team and ask them what their requirements are," explains Billimoria. In fact, the nerd who is only able to work his machine does not seem to be anyone's idea of a dream employee. In an IT consultancy working directly with clients, communication skills are absolutely essential.

"Interpersonal skills are very important because all our work is for clients, and we are keen to ensure that we meet a client's needs," says Mr Lincoln. "New recruits must be good team players, and be able to communicate with IT people, as well as end users. You have to be able to describe things in a form that the end user can understand."

Starting salaries in IT are above the average and usually range between pounds 16,000 and pounds 18,500. Sema Group offers starting salaries from pounds 15,500 to pounds 21,000, depending on degree type, and NatWest offers pounds 15,400, with a London allowance taking it to pounds 19,000. What's more, many such graduates find themselves getting bonuses and rises fairly quickly. Ms Billimoria received her first pay rise after three months, and within 18 months had seen a 30 per cent pay increase. "I will stay here for quite a long time," she concludes. "I think my career prospects here are quite good, and I really enjoy the work that I'm doing - that's the most important thing for me."