Skills: Aim wide to hit the target

As the IT jobs slump continues, now is a good time to get your existing skills certificated or train to gain new ones - but not...

As the IT jobs slump continues, now is a good time to get your existing skills certificated or train to gain new ones - but not at your own expense. But broad-based, rather than specialist skills, are the ones to acquire, writes Nick Langley.

Few organisations will be undertaking major new developments this year, which means little demand for developers with the latest skills. Unless you are out of work and stuck with a truly obsolete skill set, there is not much incentive to acquire a new skill at your own expense.

If you have not already done so, it might be worth getting your existing skills certified, although employers are going to be more interested in a dog-eared CV than a pristine qualification indicating what you might be able to do if you had a job. With lay-offs continuing, they can take their pick of experienced people.

For those in work, the good news is that employers have finally woken up to the sensible approach of training their own staff rather than poaching somebody else's. Savings on recruitment agency fees alone will cover the costs of a week or two's courses for an existing employee, who can apply what they are learning to the job they are already doing. The National Computing Centre's 2002 Salaries and Staff Issues in IT survey found that 69% of companies intended to obtain new skills by training existing staff.

According to the NCC there will be a modest increase in IT spending this year. This is expected to go on operational items rather than new development. But as the first Christmas trees were fed into the shredder, investment bank Goldman Sachs was predicting a 1% decline in spending, a reversal of last October's forecasts of 2% to 3% growth.

One thing analysts all agree on is that there will be no return to double-digit growth for the foreseeable future - and that applies to salaries as well as markets. Earnings for permanent staff and contractors have fallen month by month as fast as London house prices have been rising. The odds against earning back the costs of self-financed training in months rather than years are lengthening.

Internet and intranet skills continue to dominate new skills requirements, says the NCC, as they have done for the past three years. "This year just under half of the respondents indicated they would be seeking internet/intranet skills. Both Java and XML continue to feature strongly, while .net skills have made a significant appearance in this year's survey."

The NCC bases its survey on interviews with employers. A different picture emerges from the quarterly Computer Weekly/SSP survey of appointments data and trends, which is based on jobs advertised on recruitment websites and in the IT trade press. According to this, demand for internet skills in general declined by 84% in 2001, against an industry-wide decline in advertised vacancies of 53%. HTTP fell 89% between the first and second quarters of 2002. Demand for permanent web designers doubled between August and November, but from a very low base. TCP/IP, as a percentage of all job ads, fell quarter by quarter throughout last year.

While demand for more traditional technologies has also fallen, employers seem to be most interested in the set of skills that have dominated such league tables for the past five, and in some cases 10 years. These are SQL, C++, Unix, Oracle, C, Windows NT, Java, Visual Basic and MS Office. Windows 2000 is at last beginning to make a showing.

Web falls short of forecasts
Expectations that there would be a shortfall of 50% of Java developers by this year were part of those same late 1990s projections that would have had 110% of the population working in web development by 2020. But while demand for Java may have fallen relative to C++, Java is well established: IT advisory firm Giga Group estimates that 75% of US corporations use it, and IBM among others has standardised on it.

Employers are looking for people who already have a couple of years' Java experience. Opportunities for those with newly-acquired Java are limited - although those with a track record in C++ may have more luck. Java is now thoroughly embedded in computer science degree courses, and so Java beginners also face competition from keen, young and cheap graduates.

"A year or two back we could not get enough Java skills to match the demand, and now we can't find enough jobs for the Java people applying," says one recruitment consultant. "Java was a hot skill two years ago, and thousands of people have re-skilled which in turn has created an over-supply. We have seen the same situation with Oracle and the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer qualification. Other technologies that are hot now are .net and C#, and we predict the same thing will happen to them in two or three years."

Perhaps skills rankings that lump all versions of Unix together while listing different releases of Microsoft's operating systems separately give a misleading picture of the strength of demand for Aix, HP-UX and Solaris relative to Windows.

But surveys in the US show Unix to be in a similarly healthy position: a survey of recruitment agencies by human resources consultant HireNetworks found demand for Unix administrators to be stronger than for all flavours of Windows combined.

Part of the success of Unix is undoubtedly down to the widespread adoption of Linux by software and hardware suppliers. UK analyst Robin Bloor asserts that 2003 will be the year of Linux server domination. He says it is possible that it has already happened, in 2002. With so many sources of Linux, so many people downloading it on their own initiative, and evidence that it is in widespread use without senior management knowing about it, statistics for Linux servers are unlikely to reflect the true take-up.

Unable to rely on their usual sources of sales information - suppliers and resellers - analysts put the Linux share of the new server market in 2001 at between 9% and 30%, which left out Linux loaded on old servers. "Microsoft has no answer to the lumbering Linux juggernaut in the server space," Bloor says.

But Linux will not be challenging Windows on the desktop this year, although it is getting closer, and Sun's Star Office is doing well in the space where Microsoft Office has had no significant rivals for a long time, says Bloor.

He is also sure that this is not the year of web services. "Web services is currently like sex with aliens: some people say it happens, but nobody can furnish any proof." Christine Axton, senior analyst at Ovum, says, "The public, dynamic vision of web services is a long way off."

Web services are based on three specifications that allow the functions of a software system to be published - Web Services Description Language (WSDL); discovered - Universal Description Discovery and Integration (UDDI); and executed - Simple Object Access Protocol (Soap) by other programs.

"It has got to the point where Soap, UDDI and WSDL are all reasonably standard across the different suppliers," Axton says. "All the application server suppliers, for example, have added web services support to their platforms. But because much of the technology is not yet fully specified, a lot of it has to be proprietary. Because standards need to be specified in layers, getting more complex as you go up the stack, the commercial infrastructure - such as payment and billing services, trust and security - is the last thing to be specified."

Complaints that Microsoft's web services initiative amounted to little more than adding the .net suffix to existing products have died down. Perhaps a quarter of Visual Basic and application service provider vacancies ask for .net - though such ads are usually of the "any experience of" variety. Some employers are offering cross training to .net - now or in future - for suitably qualified Microsoft developers.

According to E-skills, the body which promotes IT skills development in the UK, the next area of shortage will be for software professionals who understand the complexity of web services architecture. "Wide-ranging middleware skills from Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) and Microsoft's .net will serve as a good starting point for understanding web services and how they will fit in to an integrated architecture."

But before users can begin integrating their applications with those of total strangers on the web, they have to get their different in-house applications talking to one another. This is where much web services work is going on, and while e-commerce initiatives are on hold waiting for bolder times, it is where much work with XML is being done too.

E-skills says application integration is one of the biggest challenges theindustry faces, and that people who understand the middlewarethat makes it possible are going to be in great demand. Java, particularly J2EE and Enterprise Java Beans, is central both to web services and enterprise application integration, E-skills says.

"Moreover, data modelling is essential to bring together multiple data sources, often from legacy databases, to enable web users to gain access to important operational data."

Knowledge of modelling languages such as Unified Modelling Language, and high-level middleware including IBM's MQSeries, is going to be at a premium. E-skills says the past decade has seen the skills pool fragment into two distinct factions: new wave web-based applications and traditional legacy systems.

"Software engineers must understand both old and new strands of technology. The wide-ranging skills needed to deploy middleware have always been rare and current demand ensures they will remain so."

Unglamorous opportunities
IT is a wounded and defensive industry in a wounded and defensive world. Money withdrawn from new developments is being spent instead on security and disaster recovery. But most work here is of an unglamorous nature: applying patches to Microsoft's Internet Information Server, installing and configuring firewalls, and downloading fixes from anti-virus suppliers. While there are opportunities for security consultants and auditors, most of this work is going to be dumped on the already creaking shoulders of systems administrators.

However, the government has removed IT skills from its fast-track visa scheme, following pressure from the Professional Contractors Group, which points out that far from there being a skills shortage in the UK, about half of contractors are currently without work. Java and Visual Basic were removed from the fast-track list as far back as 2001, and Oracle DBA in March 2002.

Some 162,000 IT workers were unemployed in the third quarter of 2002, according to the ONS Labour Force Survey. Of these, 31,000 were software professionals. Some were nearing retirement age, or were not planning to return to the industry. But the rest are likely to provide powerful and experienced competition for vacancies that do arise.

So now is not the time to spend your own money on acquiring a new skill. If circumstances mean you must retrain, choose a broadly based and generic skill, such as SQL, C++ or Ethernet. If you are a Microsoft specialist, get to know .net. On the other hand, now may be the time to persuade your employer to invest in extending your skill set - although you may have to offer commitment in return, including agreeing to pay back fees if you leave within a certain time.

Courses of action
What to do now
  • Get your existing skills certified

  • Retrain - choose as broadly based and generic a skill as possible, eg SQL, C++, Ethernet

  • If you are a Microsoft specialist get to know .net.

What to consider for the future
  • Consider those skills that have been in demand for a number of years and that are still dominating the league tables,eg, SQL, C++, Unix, Oracle, C, Windows NT, Java, Visual Basic, MS Office, and more recently Windows 2000

  • Gain internet/intranet skills

  • Software professionals who have wide-ranging middleware skills and understand web services architecture and enterprise application integration will be in demand. So consider, for example, Java, Java 2 Enterprise Edition, Enterprise Java Beans and Microsoft .net

  • As Linux gains in popularity, Unix skills will also be in demand.

Number of people not working in the last quarter whose last job was in IT
147,000 Male: 99,000 Female: 48,000

Unemployed IT people of working age
Total: 127,000 Male: 90,000 Female: 37,000
Of which:
Unemployed but seeking work
51,000 Male: 40,000 Female: 11,000
Inactive, not seeking but would like work</b> 22,000
Inactive, not seeking work 44,000
Source: ONS Labour Force Survey Published in E-skills Bulletin, November 2002

Useful links
NCC salary and staff/IT spending surveys:
Java tutorials
Security skills

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