Latest boom shows IT's role is properly recognised

Careers: IT is now a very business-outcome oriented career choice

We are currently experiencing the fourth IT industry boom in the last 10 years. Whereas the forces and trends feel very similar, the drivers and reasons for the current boom are fundamentally different.

In the mid-1990s it was the client-server explosion. This was a dramatic global shift to open systems from mainframe ones that created demand for skilled resource in almost any organisation that was running a networked computer system.

In the late 1990s, the Y2K scare created huge opportunity for IT workers and breathed a new lease of life into the dying mainframe systems development market. Unfortunately, many organisations used the Y2K threat as an opportunity to embark upon audacious and, sadly, poorly planned systems development projects which ultimately failed. I believe this was the first nail in the coffin for the drop in IT industry attractiveness we are currently experiencing.

Then came the dot.com years. This period has had a lasting effect on the industry and fundamentally changed the view of the industry of those looking at career options, as well as the habits of experienced IT job-seekers.

It is my opinion that the dot.com experience was a major contributor to the drop in interest in the IT industry we are noticing today.

One key reason the IT industry was initially very attractive (especially around the dot.com period) was its profile as a high-earning career option, which it was and still is. The problem is that other industries are now more comparable in their pay scales (examples include accounting, business management, government roles, creative industries et cetera). IT is no longer particularly special in this regard and is still perceived as a risky career option for some who look back to the dot.com experience.

In the dot.com era IT employees changed jobs regularly, often picking up $10,000 salary increases each time. Now they see the value of a stable employer and well thought-out projects, and average tenure has risen significantly.

We are now in another IT industry boom, but this one is different, as it is not caused by a technology evolution. This boom is due to a real maturing of both the IT industry and a global realisation that effective IT can truly influence business outcomes rather than merely support them. Organisations are embarking on long-term business projects that are reliant on IT, now that the advantages of a truly information-centric approach are realised.

I believe because of the business outcome drivers behind the current IT boom, this one will be longer, more wide reaching and possibly unending.

Given the dramatic drop in numbers of new people entering the industry, we are faced with a serious supply/demand issue. Not enough has been done to remove the image of the IT industry as a “job for geeks”, when in fact it is now a very business-outcome oriented career choice.

So what strategies can the tertiary sector employ to raise interest in IT careers and IT courses, and ensure more graduates and better success in graduate placement?

In preparation for the Tertiary IT conference I spoke to a number of recruiters, large employers and job seekers about their views on the current approach to, and experience of, the tertiary education sector’s role in helping build IT talent for the future. Some of the comments included:

• Overall, the quality of graduates has dropped in the last few years. One trading bank I spoke to was tasked with hiring 10 IT graduates last year. This bank is a sought-after employer. Two hundred-odd applications were received but they could only find seven worthy of hiring.

• Graduate uptake in other industries is higher (they’re less fussy, perhaps) because there is more low-level work available to junior employees. A law graduate can easily get involved in administrative tasks but a software developer has to be thrown in the deep end.

• The current trend of outsourcing the more menial software development components to India is reducing demand for graduates, but increasing the demand for highly skilled IT talent.

• There are too many IT qualifications (and qualification providers), some with low credibility and perceived as too easy to achieve.

• Good graduates today have a fundamentally different attitude and much higher expectations. Organisations are not making themselves attractive enough.

In my view, to overcome these issues, there needs to be far more collaboration between industry and the education sector and the overall quality of industry and tertiary education needs to be improved. It needs to be known that IT is again a cool and attractive industry and a career in it can now open up many other doors. This needs to be delivered to potential new workers from the secondary school years.

There seems to be a lag between what is being taught about the IT industry and what is actually happening — this gap needs to be closed.

I have probably raised more questions than I’ve answered, on what is a very serious and real issue. Conferences such as the Tertiary IT Conference are great forums to stimulate debate start thinking about solutions.

Pearson is a director of recruitment firm Beyond Recruitment. This is an address he gave at the Tertiary IT Conference in Wellington last week

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