by Caroline Veldhuis
When I started the research for this article I was blissfully ignorant of the world of computer nerds. Although I’d seen it on resumes,
C++ looked like an awfully bad grade to me. E-commerce? Was that a new bank? And I thought Java referred to a tropical vacation destination, or,more in line with my pocketbook, a steaming cup of coffee.
While computer terms are no longer Greek to me (I know “Oracle” is a database program and “Delphi” is a programming language), I’ve learned that I’m not the only one confused in computer land. Although they certainly know their A’s, B’s and C ++, even the techies can’t seem to agree when it comes to industry terms, job titles, and career paths. With jobs “in computers” evolving faster than a 56K modem, occupations in high demand one year are gone the next, and new areas of employment are created continuously. So how do counsellors assist clients considering careers in this burgeoning industry?
First of all, let it be known that the jobs are out there. One doesn’t have to look hard for a news story regarding the “IT skills gap”, and most of us have computer-conversant friends and family who have defected to the US in search of “better” opportunities. The Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) estimates there will be 50,000 unfilled jobs IT jobs in Canada by the turn of the century – and jobs in this field are created at four times the rate of any other sector.
So what’s the scoop on jobs currently in demand? ITAC surveyed its members earlier this year to answer just that question. The greatest needs cited by some of the major players in Canadian IT were for Programming Managers, Senior and Junior Software Developers, Web Developers/Designers, Technical Consultants, Help Desk Technicians and Systems Engineers. What are these jobs, exactly? The answer varies depending on who you ask. The biggest problems with IT, from a career development perspective, are that few in the industry seem to agree on job titles, and the positions change faster than the nomenclature. While NOC codes have traditionally been a useful research tool in career counselling, they may not resemble current occupations in the computer industry. There are, however, some resources available to help make sense of the jobs out there, and I’ve selected some useful ones from a rather dizzying array:
- Recognizing the myriad problems arising from the lack of standardization in the industry, the Software Human Resource Council (SHRC) and the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) recently developed the Occupational Skills Profiles Model (OPSM). There are currently 24 jobs listed, with plans to update the listings yearly. The list of positions, further information about the impetus and background for this project are available at www.shrc.ca/ssb/index.html, but note these classifications are only for software jobs. The SHRC website also has an interactive tool called the Software Career Discovery Centre, for occupational exploration and career planning (www.shrc.ca).
- One can’t mention IT without referring to Microsoft (MS). The MS website has an IT career section outlining job clusters, possible career paths, training information and an aptitude assessment tool to help people decide where they would best fit in IT (www.microsoft.com/careers/default.aspx). Many large companies have career pages on their websites, going beyond job postings to describe the positions typically available. For example, IBM outlines career paths on their site: (www.can.ibm.com/hr).
- The Fall 1999 Campus Edition of the HiTech Career Journal provides data on starting salaries for the main IT positions in Canada and gives a good breakdown of typical jobs in the sector.
Without stable sources of information on extant IT jobs, clients should be encouraged to develop their research and networking skills early in the exploration process. Information interviews are necessary to get a clear picture of available positions, and many experts recommend approaching companies directly to find out about their needs and to keep in touch to stay apprised of changes in the industry.
With the high demand for people to work “in computers”, clients may bypass the all-important step of self-evaluation, and jump in headfirst without taking the time to decide whether or not this industry is appropriate for them. When considering work in IT (or indeed, any industry), a good match between aptitudes, interests and work conditions is paramount for a satisfying and successful worklife. Marti Smye, author of Is it Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus says, more often than not, it is a poor person-environment fit that leads to job dissatisfaction. The IT environment is often characterized by tight workspace (read: cubicles), good pay, long hours, little direction, team projects, frequent training, hectic pace and too little time to complete the work assigned. Counsellors can draw from their stable of assessment tools, and have clients investigate working conditions with potential employers, to determine whether or not positions within this sector provide a good “fit”.
Regarding the skills most in demand, IT managers are now broadcasting their need for people with good soft skills, especially communication skills. The ability to talk to team members and customers, to clarify things for them, and to understand the needs of both managers and customers is extremely valuable. Since much of the work is done in teams, with people coming from many different backgrounds, techies need to be able to translate between jargon and “lay terms”. Also, problem-solving and “distilling vague, unrelated stuff into something more defined” is how one IBM software engineer describes the skills called upon at his job. I heard similar descriptions from many other people working in the field.
Closing the Skills Gap
Once clients decide on possible careers in IT, what sort of training or education is required to snag a job? Each year, computer training sections of yellow pages across Canada bulge a little bigger as private schools and programs emerge to train IT workers.
Colleges and Universities are now doubling enrollment in their Computer Science and Engineering programs, responding to a request from the federal government and the new Access to Opportunities Program (ATOP) (www.edu.gov.on.ca), and other faculties continue to expand program offerings relevant to the job market. In the last year several new options have emerged, such as Masters and Certificate programs in e-commerce, and undergraduate degrees in Media, Information and Technoculture, Information Technology, and Interactive Arts.
The choice between undergraduate and graduate degrees, diplomas, and certificates will depend on one’s background and goals, but clients may need some help sorting out their options.
|For the most part, university-trained engineers and computer scientists will be eligible for design and development jobs, or higher-level conceptual work, whereas diplomas and certificates lead to jobs harnessed to a particular technology. This does not imply that graduates of community colleges or technical programs cannot work into higher-level positions. Also, instruction in some areas, like animation, is available exclusively at the college level, and can lead to excellent opportunities. Recent graduates of the animation program at Sheridan College, for example, are earning a median salary of $56K (up to $114K), and these grads are in high demand.
Undergraduate degrees leading directly to IT careers include computer science and engineering (electrical, computer, or software), with new programs emerging as the educational system responds to the skills shortage. Students should make a careful and informed choice about the type of degree they pursue. Electrical engineering, for example, is a more appropriate background for telecommunications than computer science. Potential students should discuss career goals with academic advisors and contacts in the field to make the correct choice.
There are several diploma programs available at technical schools and community colleges, providing students with the skills necessary to work with a particular technology or application, like databases or websites. Placement rates from these programs can be excellent, and a wide variety of programs are offered across Canada
Another route to IT is through certification. This may be a good option for mid-career individuals interested in getting into IT, or those wanting to jump from one technology to another. One fellow I know switched from hardware engineering to Java software development in a matter of months, after taking a course and completing the Java certification exam. He had several job offers within weeks of certification. The same person works with several Certified Network Engineers from Arts backgrounds, who completed the certification process within a few months and started new careers in IT.
There are two streams of certification. The first type is vendor- based, where completion of a certificate signifies a level of proficiency with a particular product. Microsoft and Novell are two of many companies offering this type of certification — the Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD) and Novell Certified Network Engineer (CNE) are very popular certificates. Courses required for certification are offered at numerous independent schools and community colleges and universities, sometimes through the departments of continuing education. Students should ensure that instruction is vendor-authorized (look for, e.g., Microsoft Authorized Academic Training Program, Novell Education Academic Partner) before signing any cheques.
The other stream of certification –vendor-independent– is usually offered by associations. In Canada, examples include the Information Systems Professional of Canada (ISP) Certification from the CIPS (www.cips.ca) and the Association of Web Professionals’ new “Certified Web Technician” (CWT). Associations will have certain criteria regarding training and examinations, and should be contacted for detailed information.
Another popular option for career-changers is the Information Technology Institute (ITI), which has campuses across the country (www.iti.com). The school provides a 9 month full-time program for university graduates coming from low-tech degrees, leading to a Diploma in Applied Information Technology. Currently the placement rate within 6 months of graduation is 94%. Other schools may offer similar programs.
Clients will have to draw on their research skills when considering schools and programs, and should ask potential employers what they would recommend. It is extremely important that potential students also talk to graduates, look at placement rates, and find out whether or not any certification being offered is authorized, or they could run into trouble. Programs offering practical experience in the form of internships and co-ops are becoming the paradigm for IT education, and clients should seek out these programs wherever possible.
While university trained computer scientists and engineers will have little difficulty getting hired out of school, clients trained at colleges and private schools without practical work experience may need to complete an internship, a company training program or volunteer to get experience. Several programs are being developed to bridge the gap between education and employment, and some are listed at the end of this article.
Many experts say the easiest way to find a job in IT is by networking. Hopefully clients will have forged contacts before they begin their training, and relationships developed through internships, co-ops, and volunteer work in the corporate or non-profit sectors will be invaluable as the search for work begins. High-tech career fairs may offer further opportunities for networking and interviewing, and even distant contacts are useful for obtaining interviews, as many companies offer their employees incentives to bring new people on board. IT recruiting agencies are generally only useful after two years of experience in the field.
“To succeed in this business, one must be agile and committed to lifelong learning”, says Lynda Leonard, VP of Communications at ITAC. I’ve heard minor variations on her statement from everyone I’ve talked to in the field.
Developing a successful career in IT will require frequent changing of gears and a willingness to continually update skills. Keeping on top of trends is the key to buoyancy, since demand for certain skills may be time-limited. Gavin Douglas, Resource Manager at Asset Computer Personnel gives a telling example: “last year at this time I could place anyone who walked through my door with COBOL (a programming language) in an $85 per hour job. Now many of these people are sitting on the couch.”
The most valuable people, he says, will be the ones who know an industry, not just a technology, because the technology evolves continuously to meet the needs a particular business. So the person who’s a general programmer in the financial industry will do better, in the long run, than someone with certification in a particular skill, and no business or industry knowledge. People with a specialized skill will do really well for awhile (remember COBOL) but they will have to keep on top of trends to know when to move on to something else.
For people committed to a career in IT, one way to stay afloat is to develop some “bread and butter” skills that will never go out of demand. Industry experts recommend learning:
- a programming language (Visual Basic, Java, C++)
- a database (Oracle, Informix, Access)
- Internet technologies like web browsers, HTML, web servers
- Computer networks like LANs, WANs, Internet
Once the basics are mastered, it is easy to build on skills. The ability to work with one database, for example, makes it easy to learn a new kind when it comes along. It’s really a matter of understanding the concepts and basic procedures.
With the end of the year fast-approaching, industry experts say Y2K contract work will be drying up soon (those COBOL contracts) and there will be a shift to more permanent jobs, many internet related, with a big emphasis on electronic commerce (e-commerce). Douglas also advises that telecommunications is going to be huge for the next while as traditional forms of communication merge into wireless communication. There are definitely statistics to support his forecast: in the latest ranking of the top 100 technology companies by Canadian Business Magazine, the top 7 performers (by sales figures) were corporations providing telecommunications services and equipment. The vast majority of the top 20 slots were held by companies in this industry. (www.canadianbusiness.com see top 100 technology).
Geographically, there is not a lot of regional variation in positions, but this could change as governments make policies to stimulate job creation within their jurisdictions. One example of regional concentration is New Brunswick, the call centre of Canada, due in large part to government stimulation of the industry. And Vancouver and Montreal, helped along by provincial and municipal governments, have become the big centres for digitized media. Most IT jobs, though, are plentiful across the country, and especially in the urban centres of Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Halifax.
Computer geeks are no longer a separate species. I don’t know if they have morphed into human beings, or maybe we are becoming more like them –but as time progresses, it seems most of us will find ourselves in IT-related jobs.
Although some of us simply can’t see ourselves in “computer jobs”, technical know-how isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to work in the industry. With hundreds of IT companies out there, plenty of opportunities exist in areas like Human Resources (HR), Sales, Marketing, Corporate Communications, Account Management, Customer Service and Administration. The gap between supply and demand has also created a whole new area of work: IT recruiting can be a lucrative career for those able to combine skills in human resources and sales.
We’ve all seen (and some of you may have written) those books about the “new world of work” and the skills required for survival in the information age. Not surprisingly, networking (that’s personal, not computer) and lifelong learning are the keys to success in IT — in any position, at any level. This is the first concept clients interested in the business will have to understand.
But isn’t it refreshing to know that there is little shortage of work in the field? That there are enough jobs for everyone? Perhaps the greatest thing about cyberspace is the infinite amount of room — enough “space” to accommodate us all.
Where the Jobs Are: Career Survival for Canadians in the New Economy, by Colin Campbell, Macfarlane, Walter & Ross, 1997, 2nd Ed.
Get Certified and Get Ahead (Millenium Edition): 200 Computer Certifications That Will Get You More Money, Boost your Career, Make You More Valuable, by Anne Martinez, McGraw Hill, 1999
High Tech Careers for Low Tech People, 2nd Edition, by William A. Schaffer, Ten Speed Press, 1999
The Career Directory, 1999 Edition, edited by Richard W. Yerema, Mediacorp Canada, 1999
The 1999 Canadian Directory of Search Firms, Mediacorp Canada, 1999
Caroline may not be a computer nerd, but she is definitely a millenium worker, earning a living through freelance research, writing and educational consulting. After taking the MS aptitude test, she is contemplating her prospects in technical writing. Caroline can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org