Postgraduate: Talking telecom numbers

The telecoms sector is thriving, and offers graduates and post- graduates good opportunities.
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MANUFACTURING and engineering have been hit by the strong pound and the recent economic downturn. But one sector remains healthy, even buoyant: telecommunications. Expansion in the UK and overseas, coupled with growth in services such as mobile phones and the Internet, means the need for skilled specialists is higher than ever.

For engineering and computer science graduates, the telecommunications companies offer decent salaries, the chance to travel and plenty of opportunities for career progression. Companies such as Vodafone, Orange, Cable and Wireless, Nortel and BT need graduates to plan their networks and develop their systems.

Telecommunications may not have the profile of civil engineering or even some areas of computing, but prospects for graduates with relevant degrees are good. However, it is a highly specialist business. Undergraduate courses in electronic or electrical engineering, for example, will include some modules on telecommunications but for specialists it can pay to take a postgraduate course. Postgraduates can normally expect better pay, and a wider choice of jobs, especially in smaller companies that might not have the resources to train a generalist engineer in specialist techniques. The larger telecommunications companies offer in-house training to their graduate engineers. BT, for example, runs its own MSc.

For graduates who want to specialise before they look for a job, the choice of specialist masters courses is growing. Aston University has run its MSc in telecommunications technology for 28 years. According to Dr Peter Best, course director, about a third of the intake are new graduates. The rest are people already working in the industry.

Most have an electronic engineering background. The course teaches about advanced telecommunications engineering, explains Dr Best. Most undergraduate degrees have a proportion of telecommunications background material. This adds the specialisation. The course uses both academic staff and practising engineers from the industry.

The Aston programme includes a six-month project with a telecommunications company, and by the end of the course, almost all graduates have a job within the sector, many with their project companies.

The majority of electronic engineering graduates do see telecommunications as one of their options, says Dr Best. Some find their way after their first degree. Even then, some do come back and use a masters to top up their knowledge. The Aston programme covers communications systems, switching network management and even some of the economic aspects of telecommunications; MSc students may go on to become managers, and some already hold management roles. Increasingly, the course includes teaching on computer and software techniques. Computers and software are becoming a key part of communications systems, from an office switchboard to an international mobile phone network. Telecommunications specialists are also finding their skills in demand to design and build data networks rather than systems simply for voice communications.

Graduates who want to specialise in data networking also have the option of taking a masters, such as the MSc in computer communications and networks at Leeds Metropolitan University. Graduates from the programme go on to work as communications software engineers or network planners. The course covers the techniques engineers need to work on either local area or wide area networks, including the Internet, although course leader Ed Dodman points out that the focus is on software more than hardware.

The telecommunications industry's growing interest in computing and computing techniques means that it is not only open to electronic engineers but to graduates in physics, maths and computing. At the University of Ulster, the telecommunications and distributed systems group is developing three related MSc programmes, in telecommunications, geographical information systems and geo-telematics.

According to Dr Gerard Parr, the courses are being developed in response to industry demand in both the UK and Eire. The university first realised the need for a programme when it came to recruit engineers for one of its own spin-off companies, and found a skills shortage. The industry takes graduates and spends pounds 6000 to pounds 8000 retraining them, explains Dr Parr. The industry was asking for graduates to be equipped for the workplace, but that is impossible because they go on to so many different companies. Undergraduate courses have to be generic.

The new programmes will prepare students to take on more specialist roles. However, he stresses that the programmes will be advanced MScs, not conversion courses. Graduates in the biological sciences, for instance, might not have the background knowledge the course requires.

Ulster expects to take its first students this autumn. The three courses will run in parallel, so students will be able to move between MSc programmes if they wish. This is important, given the fluid nature of the telecoms business. A network engineer, for example, might decide to concentrate on geographical information systems, because it is becoming a vital tool for network planning.

Dr Parr admits that telecommunications is not top of every graduate's list of career choices. People don't know what goes on behind the scenes, he says. That, though, is changing. The Internet has helped people visualise what telecommunications can do. Telecommunications can be applied almost anywhere, whether it is financial services or health.