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Taking IT to Newcastle

Taking IT to Newcastle

The other day I was surprised to read an industry minister suggesting that the solution to the closure of the Newcastle steelworks is to have the workers all get jobs in IT. I have heard similar sentiment expressed elsewhere. It seems that in the eyes of many modern-day Marie Antoinettes, IT has replaced cake as the thing we should all eat.

Just what IT jobs do these pundits have in mind? As I reported in last month's column, many executives are worried about the lack of skills available for upcoming year 2000conversion projects. Perhaps this is what the minister has in mind. Should we be retraining steelworkers as Cobol or assembler programmers? If so, they had better be ready for another redundancy package - in about three years time.

However, all this discussion highlights a long-standing challenge: What skill sets should IT professionals embrace to maintain long-term employability? For example, many of the people I worked with promoting the Unix International Australian Marketing Group now work for communications vendors. My former colleagues apparently feel that, while open systems may have been a rewarding career option in the early 1990s, the deregulated telecommunications marketplace provides far better opportunities today.

The same is true within IT departments. IDC's recent "Forecast for Management" study reveals how the breakdown of Australian corporate IT budgets is changing.

Three years ago, hardware accounted for 32.4 per cent of the average budget; by the end of next year it expected to drop to 27.56 per cent. The demand for hardware-related skills will likely decline, with an excess of maintenance engineers, systems operators and the like a result. This is supported by a recent article in the May 16 edition of ComputerWorld, which highlighted the decline in night shift computer operators. On the other hand, with communications investments now representing a larger slice of the CIO's IT pie, it is likely those with communications experience will be scarce.

"Forecast for Management" also shows a decline in the number of in-house systems developers, while the use of outsourced or contract resources increased. In 1996, systems developers made up 32 per cent of a typical Australasian IT department's staff. In this year's survey, it dropped to 26 per cent. Over the same time frame the percentage of contract staff increased from 9 per cent to 15 per cent of the total IT staff.

These figures are especially notable when one examines the technology adoption responses in the survey. New disciplines such as Internet trading, multimedia, GUI-based development and data warehousing have the highest growth forecasts.

Programmers and analysts will need new development skill sets to effectively harness these technologies. But how will these skills be acquired with organisations cutting back on systems developers?The answer seems to lie in outsourcing. When companies want to set up a home page or a multimedia information service they are likely to use contractors on a short-term basis. Apparently, to work at the leading edge of programming development, a person will have to forgo the security of permanent employment and opt for the vagaries of the contract consultant market instead. In time, outsourcing companies will conceivably replace large IT departments as trainers for in-demand programming skill sets.

If any of the Newcastle steelworkers decide to follow the minister's advice, I wish them well. An IT career can be a roller coaster ride and anticipating the correct path to career advancement isn't always easy. Still, as one CIO said to me 10 years ago: "IT can never be dull when there is always something new to learn."Petre Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTep, at IDC Australia

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