A four-year degree is not likely to be enough to land an IT job in the current economy, because employers also want experience. So says a US government report on the state of IT education and training.
The Education and Training for the Information Technology Workforce report, released by the Department of Commerce, finds that while IT employers generally want their IT employees to have four-year college degrees, they also want some type of work experience.
"What we have found everywhere, from the employers' side, is what a high priority they place on experience," said Phillip Bond, undersecretary for technology at the department. "This is really useful for educators, training providers and others to understand. That adds up to offering internships."
The 225-page report, put together after eight roundtables across the US and nearly 300 responses to a web-based survey, noted that some employers may be willing to hire trainees or entry-level workers with no IT work background, but that most "see great value in experience".
"Despite the availability of good training, employers place a higher priority on actual experience in the application of technical skills," the report says. "Therefore, no matter how well-trained, a worker without practical, hands-on work experience may not be considered for most jobs involving the newly-acquired technical skills."
The report points to the need for internship programmes, although some employers said interns take too much time away from other workers. The result, said Bond, is that people looking for technology jobs, especially mid-career workers, may have to look for volunteer work or other unconventional methods to gain experience.
The report also shows the need for other programmes besides internships, said Neill Hopkins, vice-president for workforce development and training for the supplier body the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), which offers a variety of IT training schemes.
As well as technology skills, technology employers now want "soft" skills, such as people skills, and more than ever, employers are looking for the exact fit of skills when they fill an IT position, Hopkins said.
"Going out and just getting a degree or going out is no longer a guarantee to employment," Hopkins said. "There are plenty of open positions, but you would do better have the right skill set."
In May 2002, CompTIA launched an IT apprenticeship programme funded through a grant from the US Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration.
The apprenticeship programme, which combines classroom instruction, on-the-job training and demonstration of process through certifications, launched a partnership with McDonald's in June, allowing 10 IT graduates to work on projects with supervision from three McDonald's IT managers.
Marcus Courtney, president of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers in Washington state, said job seekers should read the report when looking for information on what skills and experience IT employers need in the current job market.
Courtney, who participated in the November 2001 Seattle roundtable on IT education and training, said recent graduates need to be realistic about the kinds of IT jobs available right now. Employers are more choosey than they were in the height of the dotcom boom four years ago, he added.
"There are no guarantees right now," Courtney said. "Recent graduates with no experience are finding a very, very challenging labour market."
The report notes that the number of IT jobs in the US rose from 1.2 million in 1991 to a peak of 2.5 million in 2001. But while the current IT job market may be tough for job-seekers, the Department of Labor expects that the US will add more than 2.1 million IT jobs between 2000 and 2010, according to the report.
The report found a wide variety of IT education and training opportunities are available for people, ranging from certifications and boot-camp programmes to masters degrees. Prices for IT education and training can vary greatly, Bond said.
"Because of the land-rush mentality that existed for a while, there is a somewhat confusing array of educational opportunities," Bond said. "The good news is there is a bounty of opportunity."
The report suggests that most employers are looking for IT workers with four-year college degrees and foundational knowledge of IT, not just the "skill of the day."
Some employers may be willing to hire workers with less education, however, especially those looking to fill technical support/call centre roles, web developer jobs, some database-related posts and some network administration jobs, the report says. Many employers offering those jobs want experience, however.
"The challenge for workers, especially if they are already in the workforce, is to do a good job in their 50-whatever hours a week they work, and still somewhere find time and possibly the dime to pay for staying current," Bond said.
When the IT job market turns around again, employers may want to explore in-house IT training programmes, allowing employees to keep up with new skills, Bond added. Employers should find ideas in the report for offering training, he added, and some IT companies have launched short, focused desktop training schemes.
"(Employers) all agree that even though the market is so tight right now that they can be very specific about the skill set they are demanding, that's not going to last forever," Bond said.
The report, released in late June, is available at http://www.technology.gov/reports/ITWorkForce/ITWF2003.pdf.
Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service
This was first published in August 2003