State of the IT nation

Despite redundancies and cutbacks, Bill Goodwin finds that the vast majority of people working in IT are happy with their lot,...

Despite redundancies and cutbacks, Bill Goodwin finds that the vast majority of people working in IT are happy with their lot, according to this year's Computer Weekly/DP Connect survey.

The past few years have not been easy for people working in IT. The good times of the dotcom boom now seem a distant memory. Employers have cut their IT departments back to the bone, laying off talented contractors and highly-skilled permanent staff.

Against this backdrop you could be forgiven for thinking that IT is a gloomy place to be right now. Not a bit of it. A major new piece of research shows that, despite everything, IT professionals are still optimistic about the future. They are proud of what they do, enjoy their work and do not want to swap IT for another profession.

The Working in IT 2003 study, conducted by Computer Weekly and IT and communications recruitment specialist DP Connect, quizzed more than 600 IT professionals about their work, interests, hopes and fears. The survey, one of the largest of its kind, shows IT as a confident profession that has weathered storms but still sees a bright future ahead.

That is not to say the downturn has not created its problems. Of the respondents, 50% believe that their organisations have been damaged by cuts in IT spending. They complain of pay freezes, project deferrals and having to spend more and more time maintaining out-of-date networks and systems.

According to 54%, morale in their department has suffered as a result of staff cutbacks and redundancies and 25% say they know of a significant number of IT colleagues who have left the profession for good. The word fire-fighting comes up frequently in the responses and some admit to spending sleepless nights worrying about their jobs. "We keep looking over our shoulder to see who is next," is one comment.

Contractors are much more worse off than permanent staff, according to 75% of the respondents. One contractor says he has seen the inside of more job centres than server rooms over the past five years. And some permanent staff say they are worried that falling contractor rates could put their own jobs at risk.

Yet most IT professionals are not deterred, with 66% believing that the profession has a secure, long-term future. The industry may suffer from cyclical ups and downs, but most of those surveyed believe IT is here to stay. "If you keep your skills up-to-date and pick the right technologies to train in, the sky is the limit," says one respondent.

Despite the current problems, 75% of IT professionals who took part in the survey say they are proud to tell their friends they work in IT. "My friends know what I do and how good I am at my job," says one. "I am a geek and proud of it," says another.

With few exceptions, IT professionals genuinely seem to enjoy their work. Job satisfaction motivates 60% and only 15% are moti-vated by money. One respondent says, "To get up in the morning and look forward to work has got to be a major benefit towards improving quality of life."

Only 34% say they are planning to use their IT skills to move into an unrelated career. In general, IT professionals are more likely to want to move into a different field of IT. The public sector is the most popular, followed by finance and then IT professional services. Quite a few people say they quite fancy the travel industry "for the free holidays".

Apart from a few diehards who live and breathe their jobs, the last thing most want to do outside of work is more IT. Family life is listed by 36% of the respondents as their most passionate interest. Others are interested in watching and playing sport, travel and reading. Only 7% rate computers and the internet as their top activity. Some 33% admit to harbouring secret fantasies of being a footballing or sporting hero.

Yet more than 70% of the respondents believe the profession still suffers from an undeserved geeky image. Mention IT at a party and people's eyes either glaze over or they ask you for help fixing their PC. One person says he introduces himself as a dustman at parties to avoid the inevitable, "Oh, can you help me with a little problem?" Others relish the chance to use their talents to help friends out, even suggesting it is a good experience to work on PCs with non-standard configurations.

Virtually everyone (94%) agrees that good communications skills at work are at least as important as technical skills. One manager says that graduates with combined IT and business degrees are now much more sought after than those with pure IT degrees. "Communication is the most important aspect of my day-to-day role," says one ITprofessional. However, it is still true to say that some of the best programmers "have the communication skills of a banana".

On the positive side, the proportion of IT people who think the industry's poor image is deterring women from the profession has fallen since the last survey, but only from 41% to 37%. Women complain that they feel excluded from work social events which revolve around golf or the pub. Working late and having to travel at short notice can make family life difficult. Even male IT professionals agree. "To the general public we are seen as pub bores who do not really have a life outside the computer screen," says one.

Ageism is another concern, with 34% saying that IT is a young person's profession. A number of those over 40 with good IT and business qualifications say they are struggling to find work. One was told that he was over the hill at 39. But many people feel that their companies are missing a trick by favouring youth over experience. Youngsters may pick up new technologies more quickly, but it is the older staff, with their armoury of tried and tested solutions, that are able to fix problems.

Our survey findings suggest that more people may be deliberately planning careers in IT, rather than falling into them by accident, as has happened in the past. This year, 54% say they planned the move, compared to only 46% in 2001. Many people trace their interest back to the home computer craze in the 1980s. "When I got my ZX Spectrum at 16, I knew I was destined to work in computers," is typical of the comments we received. Others transferred into IT from careers as diverse as engineering, nursing or lighting operas.

Overall, despite the current problems, it is clear from our survey that IT professionals are surprisingly positive about the future. "The majority of them enjoy their job, are proud of what they do and do not want to change their career. They are certainly more upbeat than we expected," says Jan Stevens, corporate services director at DP Connect. "Without a doubt, the downturn has had an impact and there have been fewer project opportunities for people interested in technical challenges. But people are optimistic and it looks like things are starting to pick up."

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