Is the golden age over for IT jobs?

Low unemployment rates are small comfort for the IT sector, which has been shaken from its privileged labour market position into a period of high uncertainty.

It’s less than three months until IT student Nick Cannizzo graduates from Melbourne’s Monash University and he’s near certain that he's going to land an attractive position almost immediately.

Cannizzo says he knew he was destined for a career in IT when he single-handedly upgraded the servers at his dad’s workplace. The successful experience prompted him to drop his degree in biomedicine and pursue his passion for IT.

But will it be that easy?

While Cannizzo's confidence is admirable, recent reports on the state of jobs in the ICT sector look set to cast doubt on his ambitions.

Earlier this week the federal budget brought a surprise cut of more than 4,000 jobs to the public service and the termination or deferral of a variety of big ticket IT projects.

Kevin Noonan at industry researcher Ovum says the budget cuts may well add further pressure to an industry which is going through a highly uncertain period.

Says Noonan: "Cuts to public service budgets and staff numbers will certainly impact information technology. This will come through pressure to reduce IT headcount, and indirectly through efficiency pressures on IT support services.”

The federal budget cuts follow a report last week from jobs website MyCareer, which cast a cloud on the future of a sector which has long enjoyed exceptional job opportunities.

The report predicted a slowdown in IT employment growth and perhaps the end of the ICT employment boom.

According to the report, around 524,000 people are currently employed in the sector and this figure is only set to rise to 529,000 by the end of the year.

This paltry prediction contrasts sharply with year-on-year growth of more than 8 per cent over the last decade.

And even if the national unemployment rate fell during the week to a surprisingly low 4.9 per cent, it’s little consolation to a sector that enjoyed a privileged position in the labour market for the last decade.

Business Spectator spoke to four separate up and coming local IT companies which are currently recruiting: The results are mixed but one clear message comes through... IT companies no longer hire just about anyone with an IT qualification, rather they are hand-picking the very best.

Best of the best

Andrew Thomas is looking for new employees and he’s willing tip a little extra into his staff's payslips in order to find them: Since the CEO and founder of IT consultancy firm Thomas Duryea Consulting installed his staff referral policy, the majority of his newest employees have originated through the program.

Thomas says that he pays his staff a bounty of between $2000 to $3000 if they recommend a successful candidate for a vacant position. He adds that the system has seen his workplace grow by around 20 per cent in the past nine months and has helped staff maintain positive and productive culture at work.

If his staff run out of candidates, Thomas says that he is willing to resort to using head-hunters to find the best of the best.

E-commerce website company CatchOfTheDay Group is also willing to poach staff from rivals in order to secure the most promising employees, but the company has also taken to offering contract staff full-time positions if they perform well on the job.

CatchOfTheDay’s human resources manager, Katherine O’Brien, says the company is surging ahead with the growth of its in house tech team.

O’Brien says that last September the company only employed four full-time IT staff. In the time since, CatchOfTheDay has hired 34 full-time IT staff and is continuing to hire.

As far as O’Brien is concerned, the biggest problem is not a lack of jobs but finding the right person for the right job.

This concern for finding quality staff as opposed finding ‘someone to fill the position’ is shared by digital design company 99Designs' chief operating officer, Jason Sew-Hoy
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"We’ve never been more eager to find talented people,” Sew-Hoy says.

His umbrella company, SitePoint Group, is currently looking for 12 employees across its four websites, for IT jobs ranging from software development to digital design.

David Stevens, managing director at Brennan IT – a cloud computing company – is also keen to concentrate only on finding the perfect fit for this company.

The cloud computing company recently restructured its sales division, which has triggered a demand for sales staff. But Stevens adds that IT skills are always a plus when applying for any role within his company.

"Some of the best sales people we have are tech people, or ex-tech people,” he says.

Brennan IT also utilises job search websites like Seek for the majority of its available positions.

Brennan IT is set to recruit 50 new staff over the next couple of months, but the majority of them are senior account manager and sales positions.

Although Stevens concedes that posting an ad online bogs down the hiring process – as his team has to sort through a flurry of inept, overseas applications before finally pulling out a qualified candidate – he knows it's worth the effort.

"We’ll use all the strategies available to us… it’s hard to find the right people,” he explains.

Gunning for graduates

All four of the outfits also seem keen to employ graduates. Thomas Duyea’s Andrew Thomas says his company only recently started employing graduates and has found it to be a challenge.

"It takes a fair bit of work to get them up and running,” he says.

But he adds that the benefits of employing a graduate are that you are able to shape them to fit the culture and work ethic of the business.

CatchOfTheDay’s O’Brien says that at times it can become difficult to differentiate between graduates for a position and the final decision often comes down to a first impression.

Recent IT graduate and budding software developer for PaperCut Software, William Rayner knows this all too well.

According to Rayner, a piece of software developed in his own time during his first year of university ultimately helped him score his first full-time job in the sector. Rayner says IT students should be aspiring to do more than just their degree if they want to find a good first job within the industry.

He also disagrees with reports that the IT sector is slowing down. From his understanding the longest graduates usually spend looking for a job in the sector is around four months – but the majority tend to find work much sooner.

Things ain't what they used to be

Whatever the particular experience of selected IT companies there is no doubt that things are not what they used to be in the sector.

Overall growth within the Australian ICT industry is just not occurring at the same rate as years gone by, though there will always be opportunities for those in the right area: In the years ahead the giant NBN project promises great opportunities, particularly for network engineers.

Brennan IT's Stevens says that the network looks set to give a kick-start to the industry, tipping the project to be the next biggest employer of IT services… but until the NBN gets off the ground for once, IT job hunters may not be able to walk into jobs like they used to.

Harrison Polites is a reporter for Technology Spectator.