IT expertise alone is no longer enough - a wide range of business skills will secure greater rewards.
Anybody in doubt about the growth of the information technology industry need look no further than the just published latest results from America Online. The company, which describes itself as "the world's largest and fastest-growing interactive electronic community", reported that revenues for the three months to the end of March rose to a record $312.3m - more than 185 per cent up on the same period in the previous year.

Part of the growth can be attributed to the expansion of the organisation's network of users. Just six months ago, the AOLnet comprised fewer than 25,000 modems; now there are more than 100,000 spread among more than 400 cities throughout the United States. Not surprisingly, this has brought a demand for more people, with the result that the total workforce has tripled to nearly 5,000 over the past year.

The fledgling European operation - launched earlier this year as a joint venture with the global media group Bertelsmann - has, of course, yet to reach such dizzy heights. But, as corporate communications director Judith Coley explains, it is definitely on the lookout for talent.

And not all would-be candidates have to be computer nuts. As a media outlet in competition with other, similar organisations, the company has a great demand for designers and journalists who can design a "live product" that is itself adapting constantly as well as making use of ever-changing technology. Like other companies in its field, it is seeing growing numbers of design students and art students emerging from college and "looking at computer-aided design and multimedia production as a new career opportunity".

At the moment, these companies are still prepared to train recruits in the technology, provided their design skills are good enough. But, points out Ms Coley, students are increasingly likely to be computer-literate and already well-versed in the operation of the Internet and the various methods of gaining access to it.

"What we're looking for is people who are really flexible - whatever they are using this year they won't be next," she adds. But since the Internet is becoming increasingly widely used "the main thing is we want people with a real grasp of normal consumers' design needs."

It is a far cry from that to the often arcane world of finance. But the buoyant mood in the City is also helping to raise the demand for people with IT skills.

Robert Walters Associates, one of the leading financial recruitment consultants, reports that candidates who can demonstrate a wide range of business skills on top of their IT expertise can obtain positions that carry significantly greater rewards than are available in the rest of industry and commerce. What this means is that the previous concentration on individuals with experience of financial instruments is being dropped. As many as half of these posts are being filled by IT professionals from outside the financial community, says the firm's Keith Jones. Companies are looking for staff with real commercial ability in order to make the IT department a dynamic and valuable service rather than a costly add-on.

"Both clients and candidates are benefiting in this new scenario. Financial companies are getting a better range of candidates by recruiting from commerce and industry. And IT professionals are seeing their potential salaries increasing," he adds.

"However, to get a job in an investment bank you've got to be quick and adaptable and have a real ability to keep up with increasingly complex financial instruments."

At the same time, it appears that there may be a little reaction against the trend for contracting out IT services and leaving a potentially vital area of the business to temporary staff. In the financial sector, Robert Walters reports that employers are offering better packages for permanent staff in return for greater commitment and quality.

But this does not mean that the process is all one way. Research just published by NBS, a firm of headhunters, suggests that today's graduates are keeping companies on their toes by demanding that graduate recruitment is a two-way process. They want acknowledgement of their application letters and they want personal contact through employers maintaining an on-campus presence beyond the "milk-round" period. Moreover, graduates were not satisfied with seeing a first job as a foot on the ladder. They were worried about the long-term benefits of the position.

"This shift towards higher expectations in the way the recruitment process is handled has developed as graduates become more aware of their market value," says Maggie Zownir, director of NBS Assessment Services, which surveyed 570 final-year students applying for entry-level positions in the financial and IT sectors.

"It is significant that more than three-quarters of the sample felt that if any aspect of the selection procedure were handled unprofessionally this would have a lasting influence on their perception of the company."

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