Even those with arts degrees are encouraged to try their luck, writes Philip Schofield
When electronic computers were first developed 50 years ago, experts thought there might be work for perhaps six of these machines in the world. Now computers are found in most businesses and schools and in 4 million UK homes. This phenomenal growth is the result of a revolution in the way we process information, combined with an increase in computing capacity, plummeting prices and user-friendliness.

With the increasing range of applications, the information technology industry is seeking a wider range of graduate. There are, of course, still technical posts for computer specialists. Some 5,500 people graduate each year with a degree in computing. One in 10 of these undertakes further study in such areas as neural networks, parallel computing and expert systems. Of those directly entering permanent employment, three-quarters go into areas related to their discipline.

Half the graduates entering the IT industry, however, do not have a related degree. Moreover, graduates of all disciplines and in most areas of work are likely to use IT during their careers. Half the employers listed in Graduate Opportunities 1995 accept any degree for computing and management services vacancies. This can even apply to technical areas. IBM says: "We recruit graduates from all disciplines. For technical posts, degree backgrounds with an element of computing are obviously relevant, but numerate arts graduates have been successful in these areas." Similarly, Unisys says that degrees with a technology or business focus are preferred, "although arts graduates with an interest in IT are encouraged to apply".

The fact that both companies chose to mention "arts" reflects the importance of communications skills. Most IT work is concerned with tailoring services to customerneeds. Much of the time is spent working with non-specialists. Good interpersonal and communication skills are essential. Moreover, most IT work involves teams of people who have to collaborate closely to achieve the desired ends against the tight deadlines common in the industry. Employers expect good team-working skills.

In general, computing skills are no more important than a knowledge of the application area. Thus many employers recruit generalists rather than computing specialists and train them in the appropriate business area as well as in IT skills.

Many end-users have their own IT systems. Some employ several hundred people and are larger than most medium-sized software houses. However, "facilities management" companies are starting to maintain and run these IT departments. Some, such as Hoskyns and EDS, recruit more than a hundred graduates a year.

The pace of development in IT shows no signs of slowing. With each new development come new applications. Financial institutions are keen to use the ability to integrate artificial intelligence with standard business programs. Jaguar is using supercomputers to simulate the crash- testing of a car and study what happens to every component of the car for every nanosecond during and following a collision. This "predictive analysis" saves time and money on crashing new cars into walls and provides better data.

The rate of development means that computer specialists must not only be flexible, but must also ensure that they carry on learning throughout their careers.

Career development used to depend on experience rather than qualifications. Many employers, however, register their training schemes with the British Computer Society. The society is the chartered engineering institution for professionals working in all aspects on IT and information systems engineering. It has earned recognition from the Engineering Council to award a "Chartered Information System Engineer" to those with approved experience and training.

Those entering IT would be wise to look at training schemes. Few employers guarantee jobs for life. To be a Chartered Information Systems Engineer might be a valuable insurance policy in a volatile industry.