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Historically, the fast track to a knowledge-based career was to climb the IT industry ladder.

Youngsters with a scientific or mathematical bent would sign-on as programmers or hardware engineers while the less technical sought roles in sales. The best places to look for work were staid, conservative, but paternal companies like IBM, Digital Equipment and Burroughs Machines.

Today, IT industry ground zero is working in call centres or on helpdesks. You rarely see advertisements for junior programmers or engineering cadets. There are hundreds of phone-answering vacancies.

IT companies don’t need as many programmers as in the past. Industry stagnation is only part of the explanation.

Thanks to today’s programming tools, modern programmers are more efficient than the teams assembled to write Cobol, Fortran, Pascal or the various assembly codes.

Incidentally, an employment consultant friend of mine recently pointed out the mere fact that I know those are programming languages means I’m not a suitable candidate for 21st Century coding work. Naturally I’m hesitant to admit I’ve used all those languages and even now occasionally recall the bit of Z80 or 6502 assembler. Apparently this means my brain is wrongly wired for today’s software development.

Elsewhere, more companies rely on off-the-shelf software than bespoke packages, there are fewer systems to support and, Internet applications aside; most commercial software development takes place at the coal face, not at an IT company. Today’s hot software skills involve knowing environments like SAP or Oracle as much as Visual Basic or Java.

In fact, most of what passes for software development in industry is more implementation and integration than old school code-cutting anyway. Of course, IT companies still hire programmers, but most modern programming jobs are for contractors or outsourcing companies.

The people doing the hiring regard experience as crucial, so youngsters looking for their first job are passed by. It’s one of the great ironies of our age that while managers constantly complain of skills shortages, recent graduates in IT related subjects can find it hard to get a job. Some specialist IT graduates face higher unemployment levels than the population at large.

Where industry expects to find the next generation of programmers is something we’ll leave for another time.

By the same token, there are no longer many openings for hardware engineers. Today’s high-end computers are massively more reliable; they have self-diagnostics and are smart enough to warn engineers long before anything goes wrong. Desktop computers are so simple that in-house support teams are capable of fixing any problems – which inevitably involves swapping cards or components.

I don’t want to create the wrong impression, I’m not snobbish about this, but hardware support has been considerably deskilled over the years. Well, maybe that’s not fair, but the nature of the job and hence the nature of the people performing the task and the skills required has changed considerably.

A generation ago, junior hardware engineers were a well-paid elite working for prestigious companies like IBM, Digital Equipment and Burroughs Machines. They had to understand how transistors worked, know which end of a soldering iron got hot and be handy with microcode. There was an element of high priest (never priestess) about this. I briefly worked as a computer engineer and can clearly remember being taught the art of confusing customers with jargon.

Today, underpaid, overworked, undervalued, multi-gendered, overstressed support teams handle most engineering work in-house. Apart from anything else their thankless task is worse because every desk jockey thinks he or she knows more about computers than the poor souls who have to put things right. Indeed, users are by far the biggest source of problems. And, not to put too fine a point on it, as far as most workplaces are concerned, support staff are not exactly high in the pecking order. While they may be no less skilled than the old style engineer, these jobs are no longer fast track to the top.

Likewise there are fewer corporate sales jobs for beginners. Most IT companies sell through e-commerce operations or third-party resellers. Those opportunities that remain have been massively downgraded to the status of order taker.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with working in integration, support or for a third-party reseller. But unlike the old style IT companies few of these employers offer the same kind of formal training and career development that once characterised the IT industry.

On the other hand a number of call centre and helpdesk operators now offer exactly the kind of training and development opportunities that once took place in large IT companies. In fact, some of the bigger call centre companies evolved from those IT giants.

It’s true that the call centre industry has suffered from a bad reputation in the past, but it is rapidly evolving into the sharp end of the knowledge economy. Next week we’ll look more at the call centre jobs market and see why it offers many youngsters the best route to a Knowledge Worker career.

Note: I wrote this story in 2000 just after the dotcom crash, in principle it remains as true today as it did then.