What is IT? How many people work in the field, and what sorts of companies do they work for?
IT covers the design, development and management of computer software, hardware and networks. According to the E-Skills National Training Organisation (NTO) - a government body that promotes IT and telecoms skills - more than one million people currently work as IT professionals in the UK; 45% in the IT industry itself, the remainder in other industries. They work for all sorts of organisations, large and small, public and private sector, all over the country.
Are there many vacancies?
There certainly are. In the first three months of 2001, almost 20,000 jobs were advertised in trade titles such as Computer Weekly and national newspapers. Research by the E-Skills NTO suggests that as many as one million extra IT professionals will be needed within the next five years.
How technical is the work?
Some IT work calls for technical skills, but many people working in the IT field would not consider the work they do to be very technical. There are a lot of management and supervisory positions that require business rather than technical skills, and most jobs need people who can communicate with customers, suppliers, and colleagues.
Is it only a career for men?
No, although the percentage of women in IT does seem to be dropping. In 1994, 29% of the IT workforce was female, but five years later this had dropped to 24%. Now the figure has gone down to 16%. The Government recognises that this is not a good trend, so it is backing several initiatives aimed at redressing the imbalance of the sexes in IT.
Is programming the only job?
Certainly not. There is a wide range of jobs in IT. As well as "traditional" IT jobs such as programming, systems analysis and operations work, there are specialist roles such as customer relationship management, e-commerce and Web development. And to balance all the people working in more technical areas such as database management, networking, and technical support, there are others in "softer" areas, including training and marketing.
What sort of jobs would I need technical skills for?
Jobs in programming, network support, technical support, database administration, computer and network security, and Web site development.
For which jobs would I need business skills?
All the management jobs (including IT, applications development, project, customer relationship, e-commerce, operations, Web and portal development manager, and chief executive of an IT company), as well as business analysis, and consultancy. You might gain these business skills from a university or college course, or receive training from your employer.
Which roles require communication skills?
As well as all the jobs needing business skills, there are also the positions of helpdesk administrator, marketer, product manager, user support analyst, systems analyst, systems integrator and trainer. And, of course, it wouldn't go amiss for the technical people to be able to communicate too.
In practice, you need a mixture of technical, communication and management skills for most jobs in IT.
What skills would I need to be a programmer/developer?
You need technical skills to be able to write programs (step-by-step instructions for the computer). There are a number of different languages in which you could specialise. You also need an understanding of what hardware and software might be required and how to get the different elements to work together. In addition, you need good analytical skills so that you can find out things for yourself, using your own initiative. The ability to communicate at all levels with different people would be an advantage.
What skill set would I need to be a business analyst, consultant, or manager?
You would need to understand computer technology, but from a business rather than a technical viewpoint. You would also require business skills, such as project, resource, financial, operational, and strategic management skills. In addition, you would need social skills, and the ability to communicate clearly with non-technical end-users.
What skills would I need to be a marketer or a product manager?
Good communication skills, including diplomacy, patience and adaptability, and organisational skills, such as project management, as well as lots of initiative and drive. Also, you would need to know enough about the technology to understand what you were marketing, although you would not need to be an expert.
Routes into IT
What qualifications do I need?
For jobs in the "IT and electronic services" field (installation, user support, repair, operations, helpdesk, systems administration and network support), the E-Skills NTO says you need either a GCSE in IT, a foundation and/or advanced modern apprenticeship, GNVQ advanced, A-level (or equivalent) computer studies, an HNC/HND in IT or related subjects, or a degree, depending on the actual job.
For "developing IT systems" (systems analysis, programming, operating systems programming and Web page design), the E-Skills NTO says you need an advanced modern apprenticeship or higher, depending on the job.
For higher-level jobs (such as consultant, business analyst, project manager, and Webmaster), you need either a higher degree or a professional qualification from the British Computer Society or the Institute for the Management of Information Systems.
What about vocational qualifications and supplier certification?
Vocational IT qualifications, such as S/NVQs, are available from organisations such as City & Guilds and EdExcel. These demonstrate that you are fit to do the job, and tie in with certification from suppliers such as Microsoft, Cisco, Novell and Compaq, which show that you can use the technology.
Are there any industry or government training schemes?
Companies such as software house EDS provide training lasting from two to four years, leading to NVQ levels two and three, as part of the Government's modern apprenticeship scheme. EDS trainees must have five GCSEs, including maths and English, at grade C or above.
To find out how to become a modern apprentice, freephone Learndirect on 0800-100 900.
Are there any government initiatives aimed at attracting more women into IT?
Many girls are put off IT in school, so the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Trade & Industry are setting up all-girl computer clubs in schools in conjunction with the E-Skills NTO and the IT industry.
The E-Skills NTO and the IT industry are also working with partners in higher education through their 21st Century Women project, which is designed to increase the number of female graduates taking up jobs in IT.
Then there are the Cabinet Office Women's Unit's "taster days", which it is running in conjunction with technology companies to let schoolgirls see what it is like to work in IT. Sun Microsystems was the first IT company to take part in the scheme.
Are there any schemes for older people?
The E-Skills NTO's Mature People into IT project allows anyone over 40 who works for a small or medium-sized company to apply for free training in subjects including programming, networks, PC installation, maintenance and support and project management.
Are there any schemes for returning mothers and retrainers?
With the ever-growing demand for IT professionals, more companies are having to spread their net wider to obtain staff. High street bank The Woolwich is one company that makes sure that women can return to good jobs (not just in IT), even though they may have taken a break of several years to bring up children. Sensibly, The Woolwich takes the view that if a woman was a good worker before she left, she will still be a good worker when she returns, although she may need some retraining.
Is it worth spending my own money on a supplier-specific course? How can I avoid being ripped off?
The general principle "let the buyer beware" applies to the field of IT. Do not part with thousands of pounds just because someone at a training company tells you you are bound to get a job afterwards. Check what they are telling you by looking on the Web. Talk to as many people as possible. Read Computer Weekly and visit CW360.com to see what jobs are really in demand.
How do I get experience?
One way is through a foundation or advanced modern apprenticeship. Another is through a work placement with a company, where you receive no pay, but get valuable experience. The E-Skills NTO found that 95% of businesses were happy with the people who came to them on placements, and that 81% of companies expected to hire new staff from among those on placements.
In which areas will there be demand for IT professionals in the short to medium term?
According to recruitment specialist Robert Walters, despite the problems of the dotcoms, Web specialists, Java and C++ programmers, e-business strategists, and technical project managers are very much in demand. The SSP/Computer Weekly quarterly recruitment surveys for the past year show that general Internet skills, as well as skills in C++, Java, Oracle, SQL, and Unix are most in demand.
How can I find out about financial help for training?
You can find information on the Web sites of Learndirect and the Department for Education and Skills.
Alan Stewart worked in IT for many years, and has been a freelance business technology writer for the past five years. His book, How to Make it in IT, is a career guide containing interviews with IT professionals.
British Computer Society professional body for IT staff: www.bcs.org.uk/
City & Guilds vocational training organisation: www.city-and-guilds.co.uk/
Department for Education and Skills government department with useful information and links for job seekers: www.dfes.gov.uk/
EdExcel vocational training organisation: www.edexcel.org.uk/
E-skills NTO national training organisation for IT and telecoms skills: www.e-skillsnto.org.uk/
Institute for the Management of Information Systems professional body for IT staff: www.imis.org.uk/
IT Career Opportunities part of Microsoft's UK Web site, includes descriptions of IT jobs, a list of recruitment sites and information about qualifications: www.microsoft.com/uk/skills/itco
IT Training magazine includes database of training courses: www.train-net.co.uk/
Learndirect part of the University for Industry, contains information on training courses: www.learndirect.co.uk/ and www.learndirectscotland.com/
Lifelong learning Web site for the encouragement, promotion and development of lifelong learning: www.lifelonglearning.co.uk/
Modern Apprenticeships information about these schemes: www.dfes.gov.uk/modapp
National Computing Centre membership and research organisation for IT professionals. Its site has information on careers in IT: www.ncc.co.uk/
New Deal a key part of the Government's Welfare to Work strategy: www.newdeal.gov.uk/
Recruitment & Employment Confederation trade body with information on recruitment consultancies: www.rec.uk.com/