Get literate

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Computer enthusiasts were once seen as male obsessives with all the charisma of trainspotters. But this image, if it were ever true, is fast vanishing. Computers have become a basic tool in the workplace and computer skills an ever more important qualification for men and women in the jobs market.

At one time there was a clear demarcation between IT workers and staff in operational roles. However, employers have moved from mainframe to personal computer systems as PCs have grown in power and the software systems have become more user-friendly. They have also "downsized" and "delayered" their work force. Consequently, staff in operational roles are now expected to handle their own IT applications. IT departments have become smaller and more specialised.

Although the number of specialist IT staff has fallen, the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) last month said that large numbers of organisations are reporting shortfalls in information technology/computing recruits. IT specialists have not always been responsive to the needs of end-users, and the AGR observed in its 1997 survey of graduate salaries and vacancies that "finding IT/computing graduates with the right balance of technical and interpersonal skills was considered to be difficult".

Just how difficult is described in the IES Annual Graduate Review 1996- 1997, produced by the Institute of Employment Studies. It says that: "In recent years there has been renewed concern about the shortfall in IT skills, and in particular a mismatch related to skill levels and the need for IT professionals to have a range of technical as well as `complementary' skills."

Recruitment difficulties with the IT skills required in different functional areas were reported by over one-fifth of a sample of 300 employers who recruit IT graduates. The review added: "Predictions for the future show a similar pattern. A substantial minority also expected difficulties in meeting their future IT skill requirements, particularly in the fastest- growing areas, such as object-oriented environments, fourth-generation programming languages, and rapid application development."

A third of the sample reported difficulties in finding new IT graduates who have business awareness, and are skilled at communication and project management. More than a quarter also have problems recruiting into IT functions graduates who can work effectively as part of a team.

As IT permeates all business areas, "complementary" skills are becoming increasingly important, and there will be an even greater need for computing staff who understand business issues and who can communicate with non- IT staff and clients.

On the other hand, there is just as much need for non-IT staff who are computer-literate and can make basic use of the new technology.

The growing need for IT skills and technical and management work is highlighted in a report last week, Graduates' Work: Organisational Change and Students' Attributes, published by the Centre for Research into Quality and the AGR. It looks at the attributes which will enable graduates to work in the organisations of the future. On communication, the report says:

"In increasingly delayered organisational structures, the basic use of IT, for such things as word-processing and data-processing, is becoming more of a fundamental requirement of graduates ... the traditional layer of administrative support is disappearing and graduates are expected to be self-servicing."

It adds "It is increasingly important in terms of communicating internally and externally, through faxing and e-mailing and also in facilitating `networking'." It goes on to quote the human resources manager of a large pharmaceutical manufacturers:

"They need to be able to access both internal and external databases and network around the world to gain the latest ideas from the Internet, from academic institutions. They need to be able to build networks, and that requires give and take, communication skills again and IT skills, and slightly to our surprise, we find that a lot of graduates do not have the IT skills that we might now expect of today's generation."

Computers now affect the lives of everyone, are widely used in universities and schools and in virtually every business, and are found in a significant and fast-growing proportion of homes. So it is astonishing that many graduates, and those who teach them, still do not recognise that computer literacy is important in the employment market.

A survey of more than 5,200 graduates, conducted by the Institute of Employment Research on behalf of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services and the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, asked what main attributes and skills are sought by graduate employers. Computer literacy was cited by fewer than 6 per cent of the sample and was ranked 16th out of the 18 categories into which responses were organised.

There is an urgent need to get the importance of computer literacy across to students in schools, colleges and universities. As Carol Goodman pointed out in a report for the AGR, Roles for Graduates in the 21st Century: "Recruiters observed that computer literacy will be essential for virtually any employment in the 21st century"n