What a difference five years makes?

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1 April 2005 | 0

Despite ongoing skills shortages in IT and efforts by interested parties to promote IT to young people choosing the educational courses that will determine their future careers, interest in IT courses remains stubbornly low.

Yet can we really blame talented students for shying away from technology in favour of the old faithful professional courses of medicine, accountancy and law? They may not be very exciting and they may take an inordinate amount of graft to negotiate, but rewards for those who pass successfully into these professions are virtually guaranteed.

They are also relatively easy to envision. Take the example of law. Recently the entire country has been abuzz with talk of the interim report from Mr Justice Feargus Flood of the tribunal into certain planning matters and payments made to politicians. This was initiated five years ago, in October 1997 to be exact, and is nowhere near finished. It is expected to run for a further two years at least.

 

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The good chairman of the tribunal is in his seventies, from which it is fair to deduce that he probably started his legal training in the region of half a century ago. How much has his profession changed since then?

I would suggest that the basic functions and procedures—the courtroom etiquette, the practice of questioning and cross examination, the clearly defined roles of the various officers, even the mode of dress—have hardly changed in a hundred years. Put simply, a graduate student intending to pursue a career in the courts has a pretty fair idea of what they can expect their daily grind to look and feel like even into the distant future.

By contrast, let us look at how much the technology landscape has changed in Ireland since the Flood Tribunal was established. First of all, prepaid mobile phones were just being introduced in the autumn of 1997. So at that time we still did not have a generation of teenagers with ultra dextrous thumbs whose agility had been honed sending SMS text messages at every available opportunity.

An advertisement from Dell Computer in the October issue of ComputerScope that year described an ‘Application Development Workstation’ which contained a 266MHz Pentium II, 64Mbyte of RAM and a 2Gbyte hard drive along with sundry multimedia features for the whopping price of £2,634 (€3345). Today a desktop machine that is eight times faster, with twice as much memory and ten times as much disk space from the same company costs just over one third of that price.

More tellingly, a glance at the recruitment advertisement section (remember our Pink Pages?) reveals a plethora of situations vacant for Cobol programmers, IBM MVS programmers and mainframe application developers. (This was in the run up to Y2K, remember.)

Also in demand were Windows NT Administrators, C++ programmers, software developers/engineers and localisation experts. There were a few people eager to recruit those conversant with the new fangled Java programming language, but astonishingly, a careful perusal of eight pages of ads fails to find a single mention of the word Cisco.

Yet at an event in Dublin less than two years later, an IDC analyst told the audience that a Cisco accredited engineer could quite literally ‘name their price’ to any prospective employer.

By how much will the requirements of the technology job market have changed by the time this year’s dwindling intake of Computer Science students hits the streets in three or four years’ time? Will they find that the sweat expended learning the intricacies of Java and J2EE were in vain? Will there be enough Linux administrator jobs to go around? Will the success of Web Services and reusable code have resulted in a general deskilling of the task of code development?

I feel for them. It is a matter of mild regret to me that the many hours I spent learning how to write DOS batch files, largely by trial and error, have bequeathed me a skill that is now about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. But time moves on and I don’t really want to swap my PC (or office Apple) for a DOS machine.

Can anybody guarantee the prospective technology students of today that they will be as well equipped to take on the jobs market as their counterparts in law and accountancy? One could say that the jury is out on that one.

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