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Great jobs, good money, few takers

Money and career prospects are no object. But IT still can't escape its image problem.
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY offers graduates attractive salaries and good job prospects. Computing is one of the world's growth industries - in the United States, it is already bigger than oil or car manufacturing - and companies have a real need for qualified, motivated staff.

Despite this, too few sixth-formers rank computing and information technology among their first choice of degree. Young people are more exposed than ever to computers, both in education and in their daily lives. But not enough want to take their interests further and read for a computing degree.

Universities are recruiting more students to IT and computing courses: according to UCAS, applications have risen by 19 per cent. The problem for the computing industry is that it can absorb all the graduates universities can produce, and then some. Research carried out for Microsoft, the software giant, points to 1.6 million job vacancies in IT by the year 2002, unless the industry and universities take steps to increase recruitment and training.

The computing industry is the first to admit that it has an image problem, and that this hampers recruitment both at graduate level, and to computing degrees. Even when they can fill their programmes, IT course leaders concede that they are not always able to pick the cream of applicants. Degrees such as law, English and media studies continue to attract the brightest students, even though the job market is not nearly as favourable for them.

Multi-media, digital TV and the Internet mean that computers are becoming more glamorous, but this has yet to affect the image of IT careers. Mark East, education group manager at Microsoft UK, says: "The view is that most techies are nerds with beards who program all day."

East believes that the common perception of the IT industry is out of date but is concerned it may be being reinforced rather than countered by the universities.

University IT courses, and computer science degrees in particular, are scientific and often very theoretical. Applications for all numerate degrees have fallen over the last few years, with subjects such as physics and chemistry the worst hit. Students associate computing degrees with science and maths, and the curriculum content at many universities justifies their caution. The IT industry has changed massively in the last 10 years, and it now employs graphic artists, writers, designers, sound recordists, marketing experts and sales professionals, as well as programmers and software engineers.

Some universities, particularly former polytechnics such as Wolverhampton, Middlesex and Brighton, have introduced new courses aimed at the new breed of multi-media specialists. In others, more traditional courses continue to emphasise programming skills, sometimes in dated languages, and the theory of computer or software engineering rather than modern applications and concepts such as web authoring or network design.

Sixth-formers with an interest in computers, but have arts A-levels, are particularly deterred by traditional, maths-oriented computing degrees. From an industry point of view, such degrees are not strictly necessary.

The IT industry readily agrees that there will always be a demand for traditional computer scientists, especially in research roles, but the business world needs many more graduates who can work with IT, but who may not need the pure theory computer scientists learn. Research carried out by NOP for Microsoft found 20 per cent of people entering the IT industry did so without formal IT skills.

Graduates with computer science degrees may not even make the best IT managers. Computing companies point out that IT graduates often lack transferable or "people" skills, especially communication, and a knowledge of how business works. They can find it hard to adapt from the pure techniques and methods they learned at university to the realities of working in the computing business.

Dr Neil Barrett, senior fellow at Bull, the IT group, and a former university lecturer, says: "From an industry point of view, we are often better placed to take people with good generalist degrees and turn them into engineers." Computer scientists will have learned to use elegant, compact languages, and pure programming techniques, but they can stumble when it comes to creating real applications in a real workplace, Dr Barrett says. "They are people who understand the finer details of software programming but cannot program. We have to start again and teach them the methods and tricks we work with."

Universities are aware of industry criticism, but academics say the role of universities is to educate and promote learning, not to operate as training centres. Fashions change, and today's hot computing application or in-vogue language may be tomorrow's dated skills. A good university course prepares graduates who know how to learn, and will, therefore, be able to adapt to new techniques as they develop.

Dr Mike Joy, who is course leader in computing at Warwick University, says: "You cannot put large numbers of modules for current pieces of software into a three-year degree. Software changes so rapidly that we would have to be continually reinventing the course."

Universities such as Warwick are responding by running broader degrees which balance the theory of computer science with more applied subjects, such as business. These courses are extremely popular and they may be one way to produce graduates with a real understanding of computing and the wider skills they need in a modern IT company.

Warwick runs a computing and business studies degree and computing and management studies. The courses average more than 10 applicants per place. Brighton University is working with Microsoft to ensure its degrees contain up-to-date material, and it offers a range of degrees, such as computing and information systems, which are broader than traditional computer science courses.