Human networks where the jobs are

Earlier this month, I reported that for IT graduates to get jobs in a tough market, they need communication and business skills as well as technical knowledge.

Earlier this month, I reported that for IT graduates to get jobs in a tough market, they need communication and business skills as well as technical knowledge.

This was confirmed at a recent meeting of the New Zealand Computer Society at the University of Auckland, featuring academics, IT students and industry leaders.

The scene was set by university deputy research vice-chancellor Tom Barnes who spoke of the economic challenges facing New Zealand and how the university hopes its backing of IT will help us back on the road to prosperity.

Barnes conceded it was a grim start to the gathering, and went on to lament the country's "poor economic performance" over the past few decades; slipping from the top of the economic league table to 24th in 2002, and facing the prospect of dropping off the table, like Argentina.

We are now so far behind we have to run faster to stay still, and that means maintaining an average economic growth rate of at least 5%. Consequently, over the next five to six years, New Zealand needs to develop three industries the size of the dairy industry if we are to catch up with the world's most prosperous nations, he says.

However, Kiwi companies like Baycorp Advantage, Lion Nathan and Heinz-Wattie are upping sticks and "our brightest graduates" are also going overseas.

Poor economic performance has led to falling government subsidies and the education sector "facing a crisis".

The government today provides 38% of university income; the rest is made up from tuition and research fees. But the government is looking at further funding changes and capped fees, yet student numbers are rising.

To help plug the funding gap, and also lift the economy, Barnes says the university is boosting its links with industry, through its involvement in Auckland's Icehouse business incubator and its UniServices research arm. Uniservices has increased its income from $1 million a year in 1991 to more than $43 million in 2001, growing at 15% a year in the past eight years. It is now responsible for half the university's research and development income.

UniServices and its students have, he says, worked on research projects for organisations as diverse as the Navy, Ernst & Young, Advantage, Vodafone and Waitemata Health.

Now, the university plans a "world-class business school that excels in business and economics". It would cover 28,000 square metres, employ 200 academic staff, teach 7000 to 9000 students and offer "the best facilities to attract the best businesses".

The $100 million "vision" is scheduled to open by 2006. The government has offered $25 million towards it, leaving the university to find the $75 million remainder. However, the school would "help New Zealand", Barnes says, by helping in the area where the economic "news" was not all bad.

New Zealand starts more companies per head of population than others, but has an equally high failure rate, so we need to know how to grow them.

"We need to combine the business flair with superior skills and management. The back-office syndrome is no longer good enough. Now, in addition to technical knowledge, graduates must have business and communication skills," he says.

"The school would offer great intellectual leadership, more talented entrepreneurs, managers and more high-quality courses and better facilities for our IT teaching programme," Barnes told the meeting.

Computer Society vice-president Bruce McLean told the students in the audience to develop links and "personal contacts" with industry people through meetings like the one that night.

Joanne Hodgson, head of Conduit, the e-commerce arm of Renaissance, says IT staffers need to better understand business "fundamentals" as IT is now central to an enterprise.

"Presentation and communication skills are absolutely critical. Our technical people are as important in customer-facing roles as any sales and marketing person. Our technical people are involved in the sales process. They write the scope [of a product] and are involved in selling [it] to the customer," she says.

"Our developers are becoming more multi-skilled. They present and communicate to the customer. They present and lead projects, ensure the development is completed on time and in budget. Certainly they must be articulate and professional," Hodgson says.

Gen-i head Garth Biggs says the systems integrator also looks for people who "have attitudes that support team working, communications, problem solving, customer focus."

Building a happy team is as important for project managers as meeting budgets and timeframes.

"If you are a prima donna, go somewhere else," he says Biggs also advises people to decide whether they want a wide-ranging role with a smaller business, or a narrowly-defined, specialist role at a larger organisation.

He added: "The industry generally pays well. But if you want to earn a great deal of money, do not get a job with someone else. Start your own company!"

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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