First steps towards a career in IT by The Open University

Guest blog post: Kevin Streater is executive director for IT employer engagement at The Open University. The Open University are contributing a series of articles for ITWorks over the coming weeks, breaking down the skills requirements for making your way in the IT profession

The skills demand on those entering the IT profession has changed significantly in the past decade as IT professionals have become a strategic component of their organisation, engaged in all business decisions. However, it can often be this business onus that employers find lacking in their new intake.

Last month the minister for universities and science David Willetts proposed a dramatic overhaul of GCSE IT to make the subject more focused on business needs. It was a grassroots response to a problem which affects much of IT education, right up to graduate level.

The Open University’s ‘Developing professionalism in new IT graduate – who needs it?’ report found that 43% of employers were concerned by how little knowledge graduate applicants had about business operations.

In a bid to overcome this skills crisis, The Open University has led a new effort from educators to not only increase the business relevance of their courses but also provide more routes into the industry for those from vocational or industry backgrounds, as well as those following the more traditional academic route.

Part of this means working with employers to understand the key skills students need to pursue a career in IT and linking them to a set of entry level roles defined by the internationally recognised Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

Your first job

Whilst the job titles may vary slightly, there are five main roles available to new recruits into the IT sector – recognised by government and across the industry as the first step on the career ladder.

•    Service desk agents – act as the first point of contact for all IT issues. Responsibilities  include fault reporting and first line problem resolution, customer service and communication

•    Support technicians – perform simple operational tasks running scripts and batch jobs

•    Systems operator – responsible for the day to day running of an IT infrastructure and may also contribute to the identification and resolution of faults in those applications

•    Application support – responsible for supporting users in particular applications that enable businesses to be successful

•    Network operations – responsible for the installation, basic configuration, management, support, and operation of networks

Whilst these job titles carry their own responsibilities and require their own unique skills sets, the paths into these roles are varied and open to people from a range of backgrounds who want to learn in different ways.

The Open University has developed resources to help both students and employers identify appropriate higher education modules, qualifications and continuous professional development (CPD) courses based on standardised professional skills set out in SFIA.

Below lays out examples of the different routes into these entry-level jobs, which provide an alternative to the traditional academic university path and the types of people the form of learning may best suit.

A vocational route

A modern day university education is a significant commitment and certainly not for everyone.

Potential employees to the IT industry are increasingly searching for alternatives which still allow them to demonstrate the right skills and expertise and secure that first job without having to commit to a university education up-front.

The Open University recently launched a higher apprenticeship programme with Capgemini that provides a vocational, skills-based pathway combining hands-on technical learning and professional development. It is specifically aimed at those looking to take their first steps on the IT career ladder but who haven’t got the academic background required for university, or are simply put off by that particular way of learning.

For employers, it represents a new approach which sees them work with The Open University to grow their own graduate talent rather than relying on the output of traditional higher education. The higher apprenticeship programme instils in new recruits the most relevant technical skills within the context of their organisation and reduces the time employees spend out of the office.

The Open University’s higher apprenticeship programme can be completed around an existing job so you earn while you learn. The first part of the programme  takes only seven weeks with a three-hour session organised at a location and time to suit each student and their employer. From then on the rest of the programme is delivered in the workplace using real-world experiences to provide the learning context.

A business relevant degree for career switchers

For career changers, already in employment but looking to make the switch over to IT, the cost of traditional higher education coupled with high unemployment represents a scary environment in which to re-skill and change career direction.

In this situation it is essential that universities give their students the best possible chance of finding a job and maximising the investment in their degree programme. This means not only providing a comprehensive grounding in technical skills but also giving students the experience and knowledge to apply these in a business environment to meet commercial objectives.  

The Open University recently launched a new joint honours degree which allows students to combine their IT studies with a complementary subject in business, design, mathematics, psychology or statistics. By adding new work-based learning modules, offering specialised pathways to particular IT roles and including the latest industry recognised Microsoft Server and Cisco Networking certifications, The Open University is working to ensure its graduates have the mix of technical skills and office experience employers want.

Dip your toe with a recognised qualification

For some potential career switchers the commitment associated with enrolling on a traditional full time degree, can be too much. The benefits of The Open University approach is it breaks down degrees into individual courses which not only offer credits towards a full degree which you can work through at your own pace, but also come with a recognised certification in their own right.

My Digital Life is a newly launched module from The Open University that provides a grounding in the subject – looking at the origins of information technology right through to the familiar computers of today. It acts as an introductory course to higher education IT but also stands alone as a recognised qualification which can help you get that first IT role.

As well as a way to demonstrate to potential employers your competence and interest in the subject, it gives you hands on experience in skills such as programming and the web which you can use in the workplace. Once you have secured that first IT job, your employer may well look to develop your skills further in other courses as you work towards a full Diploma or BSc in Computing and IT.

Also read:

IT sector must speak in skills to bridge gaps in capability and boost IT workforce