Forging a career in an offshore age

Job prospects: Although many technical roles are being moved offshore, the career prospects of younger IT workers in the UK are paradoxically strengthened

Job prospects: Although many technical roles are being moved offshore, the career prospects of younger IT workers in the UK are paradoxically strengthened

There is a point of view that says that since many IT jobs are being moved offshore, IT no longer offers good career prospects unless you live in India or another offshore centre.

In the UK, interest in IT, as evidenced by the number of applications for computer science degree courses, peaked in 2001 at 27,000 but has since then fallen to less than 15,000. And some of those graduating (notably women, according to a recent report) are not embarking on IT careers.

As one US professor of computer science said, "At present there is a lack of interest in this discipline. This could be due to uncertainties in the job market. Outsourcing is on everybody's mind, and computer science is considered a high-risk career choice."

So is there a career to be had in IT in the offshore age? To answer that, it is worth bearing in mind that offshoring is an option only for the largest companies. IT departments of about 100 people find offshoring difficult to manage and incur overheads that would eliminate the gains. So despite the offshoring headlines, there is a large silent majority of stay-at-home IT jobs.

And most companies which offshore know that unless they keep significant onshore IT teams they will lose the ability to control their investment in systems. Without technical expertise and involvement, they will no longer understand the risks, costs or other consequences of technical choices being made on their behalf elsewhere.

And without business analysts who can work effectively with the business and understand technically what can and cannot be built, their investment could be misdirected.

So rumours of the death of the on-shore IT worker have been greatly exaggerated.

What makes the situation especially interesting in 2006 is that among the biggest companies - those which offshore - there has been minimal recruitment of graduate trainees into IT for the past four or five years. On average, those companies have been augmenting their headcount with trainees by fewer than 1% a year.

The exception is investment banking and related areas: many financial firms cut their IT headcount drastically a few years ago and have been restocking since 2004. But across IT as a whole, recruitment of trainees is less than the natural "leakage" of people from IT - the UK's IT skills pool has been depleting for some time.

And because of low trainee recruitment, it has been ageing. It is not at all unusual to find IT project teams with no one aged under 30.

And that is why, contrary to some headlines, IT career prospects are actually rather good for younger workers today. The recent dearth of graduate recruitment means that those entering IT in the next few years - and those who have entered in the past few years - are a select few. Those with ability and ambition will find themselves in strong negotiating positions in the years ahead.

In planning their careers, however, it is worth bearing in mind that those who get to the top in IT are almost invariably from the application development community. Trainees would be well advised to get into application programming and analysis early on.

With hands-on experience of that as a base, and increasing experience of picking one's way through the complexities of managing business change and projects, there will be no ceiling on your career.

Even if, a few years from now, your employer decides to extend offshore working, you will be well positioned to manage that work. Every company will need good business analysts and project and programme managers in the years ahead.

Iain Smith is founder of Diaz Research, an analyst company focusing on IT human resources

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