Fast Track Careers

It seems only yesterday that legions of bean counters stormed the barricades to achieve the impossible: transforming their dowdy image and entrenching themselves front of house in corporates. But things change.
What was once hot in 1980s’ career paths may no longer even be warm, unless accompanied by range of skills, credentials and strong personal attributes. Even secondary school pupils making their first tentative career moves are aware of the shift and calling local universities first to check the temperature of their prospective degree(s).
The portrait of graduate employment as painted by the New Zealand Vice Chancellors’ Committee report into graduate destinations, shows predictable menu of career choices. The year 2000 report covered the destination outcomes for 24,054 graduates from universities during the 1999 calendar year. The three largest employer groups for Kiwi respondents employed full time were: health and community services; government administration and defence; education – primary and secondary.
The two dominant occupational groups for graduates working full time were managers and administrators, including trainees and teaching professionals. Nothing surprising here, until it is compared with the Vice Chancellors’ 1990 report that is. Then business services were the biggest employer, followed by education.
The latest report notes: “The strong growth of accountants and related category since 1978 has finally reversed, with 0.7 percent decline in the proportion of graduates compared with last year. However, overall numbers continued to increase slightly. Between 1988 and 1990 educationalists increased by 0.9 percent… the largest decrease came in the lawyers and related category, down from 4.4 percent to 3.2 percent since 1988. In the same period industrial and general management trainees increased from 2.2 percent to 3.8 percent.” When it comes to occupational groupings, IT has humble following near the bottom of the list.
What has changed in 11 years is the trend within the groupings as the demand for specialties is matched by an equal value being placed on both intellect and personal attributes. Prized jobs include ‘business analyst’ and, in an era marked by genetic engineering and computerisation, bio-technologists and IT movers and shakers. Outside the tertiary sector and beyond the measure of the VCs’ committee is an entire group of young IT entrepreneurs who through originality and innovation can make millionaires.
The Vice Chancellors’ report suggests where some of our best graduates are going, and that’s straight into the government sector. But Jim Bohm, senior careers adviser and Auckland University’s careers and employment officer, thinks that’s unlikely to be long-term move. He thinks they’ll move back into the private sector over the next five years.
According to Bohm, leading companies and consultancies are looking for “talent succession” and targeting the best and brightest students.
If best also means broad in terms of talent, then his views are backed by the university’s employment coordinator at jobsforgrads.net, Tony Crane. “There’s now tendency for employers to look for generalists than was the case previously. The generalists are getting on the fast track,” he says.
The trend is reflected in the universities by the number of students who are doing double degrees or conjoints. “We have, for instance, almost as many doing graduate diplomas in computer science as we have in BSc computer science,” says Crane. “These are people who have already completed one degree and want to broaden it.”
Employers are certainly looking for these levels of qualification but Crane warns that credentials take people only so far. They often appoint individuals who are creative and adaptable as opposed to being an expert. Business appears to be as much focused on talent as it is on skills. In support of his contention Crane points to an increase of more than third in the number of employers seeking to employ graduates over the past 12 months.
Crane also believes there is slowly growing recognition among employers that humanities graduates have particularly useful skills. They have the ability to analyse and think critically, skill set they share with science graduates.
Employers appear to recognise the relevance of business degrees that take case-study approach to learning. The social sciences take similar problem-solving approach to things.
This emphasis on problem solving is what major consulting companies like Booz Allen and Hamilton look for in the graduates they recruit. “We don’t target any specific background,” says BAH director, Tim Jackson. “We look for problem-solving skills – people who can take logical approach to complex, unstructured problem, put structure around it then drive it through to its conclusion with the client,” he says.
“You might imagine that consulting firms employ people with economics degrees, but that’s not the case,” says Jackson. “Many of our people are from engineering or science backgrounds, or from law and medicine.
“The skills [we look for] don’t reside in any one degree.”
These skills do, however, run parallel with high intelligence and tenacity which is why companies seek out high achievers in the broadest sense of the word. “You have to be in the top five percent before you make the grade with us,” adds Jackson. “We are looking for the best candidates. And you need to show you can apply yourself. We look at other criteria but, these are pretty fundamental.”
If the bar has been lifted slightly in the past 10 years it is partly to do with the difficulties and demands of modern business. According to Jackson clients are now more demanding. The problems they face are more complex. “They won’t accept brain on stick – people who know nothing about an industry but say ‘let me fix it’. Clients simply say ‘go away’.”
Raw analytical skills do, however, need to be balanced with an ability to interact well with clients. And to avoid the “brain on stick” syndrome completely, they must be topped up with industry knowledge. To build that expertise, Booz Allen picks the best graduates and allows them to work in experienced teams for two years. It also runs secondment scheme in which young business analysts are placed with client for year while the consultancy pays his or her salary.
According to Jackson this approach helps create rapport with the client and provides the graduate with some “real world grounding” in the complexities of the business.
A career as business analyst has number of attractions. These range from the accelerated level of responsibility after two or three years, to the highly focused training and pay. It pays well, about 20 percent above the industry rate.
But the job is demanding and constantly challenging. Clients have high expectations and so do employing consultancies like Booz Allen. “There has never been time in my career when I felt I could coast,” warns Jackson.
If business analysts are presented with clients’ challenges, IT and internet companies provide their own. Picking the occupational trend isn’t easy in an industry where the only constant is flux. “It depends which three month segment you are in,” says Neville Andrews, head of IT at TMP Worldwide.
The fast track in IT is probably offshore, according to Andrews. But IT career aspirants need knowledge of ecommerce, web applications and telco applications – things that will allow you to interface with home entertainment. It’s all about giving people better choices in the entertainment and internet sector.”
But if ever an industry has developed with fast lane, then IT is it. And for some, “no educational qualifications” are necessary to be successful. Many young people simply know the web and what their PC can do and they go on to develop applications they sell to the world.
As the occupational trends wax and wane, history provides some warning indicators: burst dot-com bubbles, esoteric

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