Computing skills for Catch 22

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that there is a jobs boom in the IT market after five years of recession. IT directors now cannot find enough good people. Job advertisements in the IT trade newspapers, such as Computer Weekly, are at an all-time peak. The forecast is that the boom will continue for at least another year to 18 months.

But the bad news is that the IT industry still has an unhappy fixation with hiring only experienced staff. Breaking in is as tough as ever. It's the problem of "How do I get my first job when companies insist that I have experience first?"

"If anything, I'd say the Catch 22 is worse than it was before the recession," says Clive South, of the IT recruitment consultants Software Personnel. "The recession blew a hole in the old 'jobs for life' ethos, so companies are even less prepared to risk taking on trainees, who will then move on to another employer."

Ironically, the current IT job boom makes the threat of defection even more real. "Everyone wants to hire the first job mover," says Mr South.

But a counsel of despair is not inevitable. According to this summer's figures published by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, "vacancies for graduates in industry are forecast to rise by 19.6 per cent" and the Association identifies IT as one of the main areas of recruitment difficulties, along with finance and engineering.

"A large proportion of our members reported difficulties in recruiting graduates into IT functions, the respective figures for 1995 and 1996 being 16.3 per cent and 21 per cent," reports the Association in its summer update.

So the trick is how to take advantage of those statistics to transform yourself from unemployed arts graduate to lucratively remunerated IT professional.

"Taking on your own training will undoubtedly help," says Mr South. It shows determination and basic ability, though it will still take a couple of years of hard work. "A course will get you going," he argues. "It won't take you half-way up Everest, but it will let you leave Base Camp behind."

That means enlisting on one of the hundreds of software training courses available, both commercial (expect to pay several hundred pounds for a two- to three-month intensive course), such as those from the training company Control Data, and from educational establishments such as the University of Westminster.

This was the route taken by Matthew Walker, who graduated in June 1994.

"I'd read American studies because it got me to the US for a year, but I didn't want to end up as a history teacher," he recalls. Instead he decided to sign on for a three-month government-funded scheme for unemployed graduates, and learnt a brace of PC applications in commercial use, such as Wordperfect, Paradox and the Sage accounting package.

"But it wasn't enough for me to get a career in IT," says Walker. So he moved to London, and paid his rent delivering kit to building sites while doing an evening class in the C programming language at the University of Westminster.

"It was very cheap, about pounds 40 for two terms," he says. But he found that his good marks did not automatically guarantee him a job in IT. "There were good jobs around, but everyone wanted computer science degrees," he recalls.

At Christmas, he applied to a major UK insurance company, and after four rounds of interviews and a barrage of tests, including psychometric and IT tests, he was in, employed as a Cobol and mainframe DB2 database programmer on pounds 14,500 a year.

His experience points to a surprising truth. Most graduates assume that the most useful IT skills are object-oriented languages, such as C++, or those associated with the new wave of distributed client-server computing, such as Unix, C, Novell and Microsoft Visual Basic, or even the latest hot language, Java. But there is still a real shortage of Cobol skills in the market and that demand can only rise, given the need to update millions of lines of Cobol code on mainframes to cope with the date change at the millennium: some estimate that Cobol programmers will increase by 50 per cent every six months until the year 2000.

Moreover, few computer science graduates will have paid much attention to such an old language as Cobol, however pervasive it is on mainframes. "For a non-computer science graduate, leaning Cobol or RPG is not such a bad way of breaking in to the IT industry," says South.

And once you're in, you can always retrain after a year or so and move into a more exciting area of IT