The information technology (IT) sector is going through a tough time, with closures and rationalisation on the news every other week. Figures released by IDA Ireland show that US technology firms Gateway, Xerox and General Semiconductor have together paid back €27m in grants this year following the closure of several facilities during 2001.
Traditional recruitment agencies have shifted their focus away from IT, diversifying into other sectors to reduce risk. It is the same for online recruitment companies. For example, Alan Townsend, managing director of www.monster.ie, said that in the past two years IT-related positions have gone from making up 50pc of the website's content to about 17pc today.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, as far as chairperson of the Irish Software Association (ISA) and chief executive of consulting firm International Ventures, Paul O'Dea (pictured), is concerned.
"For the past number of years, 3,000 additional jobs have been created in the Irish software sector. It is unlikely that this figure will be reached this year. Undoubtedly, jobs in the IT sector here are linked to US consumer confidence, statistics on which don't make for encouraging reading. Once the cycle turns, demand will exceed supply again. For graduates starting to study IT-related courses, there will be lots of jobs in three or four years time," he said.
Despite the difficult operating environment, there are interesting openings for people looking for work in the IT industry. In particular, there is a strong demand for international sales capability. Research carried out by International Ventures shows that 70pc of indigenous Irish software companies feel that they don't have all the necessary skills in-house to conduct a complex international sales process.
"Lots of good technology companies get to a particular size, usually with annual revenue of between €1m and €5m, but they don't get beyond that because of lack of international sales skills. There is a need for concerted action from industry and Government agencies to improve training and to teach technology experts how to sell," said O'Dea.
On another positive note, O'Dea said that internet-based technology skills are clearly in demand and will continue to be so for many years to come. Denise Airlie, managing director of recruitment specialists NewMedia CV, agreed: "Recently there has been a regeneration of certain internet-based companies. It is different from the time when companies got funding on a promise. A number of companies that have eked into profitability are getting tranches of funding based on tried and tested business models. They are not pure play dotcoms."
Airlie has observed that overall IT spending is up. This is borne out by a Deloitte &Touche e-business survey published in September, showing that 61pc of firms will increase the investment they make in IT in 2003, relative to 2002. Four out of five (82pc) of the 346 Irish business managers surveyed said that IT investment represents good value for money.
Airlie said there is a high demand for customer-facing technology, as a lot of companies have gone through their product development phases and want to move into the implementation phase. She also said there has been an upsurge in call centre jobs, ranging from technical support to multilingual first point of contact positions.
Another trend identified by Airlie was the movement away from permanent to short-term contracts. "This shows that there is still slight instability in the market. Companies want to keep the headcount level at a minimum when planning in the short- to medium-term."
From the ISA perspective, this trend has not accelerated, said O'Dea. "In the boom, contracting was prevalent and people were being paid exorbitant daily rates. This path tends to be less attractive during harder times. People are keener on finding security."
The Small Firms Association recently made the projection that demand for IT staff in the small business sector will decline by 25pc to the end of 2002. O'Dea did not accept this assertion: "The key for a lot of small firms is to be as efficient as possible. With increasing salary and other costs, they need to use technology to enhance competitiveness."
Those companies that are recruiting IT staff are becoming a lot more picky, according to Airlie. "Every key hire has to be justified. The relationship between companies and recruitment specialists has changed as a result. Companies want to hire quickly and are going for the preferred supplier relationship, rather than an ad hoc recruitment approach."