IT conversion courses: not all employers are converts

Conversion courses have mushroomed since the IT industry complained it couldn’t find enough graduates to fill jobs. But some say the tech sector is reluctant to take on conversion graduates

The proposition seems simple – even compelling – at a time when the tech industry here is crying out for new blood: if you are currently out of a job, want to change career or are desperate to work for an industry that offers more scope for career progression, sign up for an information technology conversion course.

Conversion courses to IT have been around for over 10 years, but recently the number has risen sharply after tech companies complained they couldn’t find enough computer science graduates to fill jobs.

The Government responded by setting up Springboard and ICT Skills Conversion, two schemes that fund free or heavily subsidised places on conversion courses in IT and other growth areas for unemployed yet skilled professionals in industries that have been hit by recession.

On the surface they appear to be working well. A 2014 review by the Higher Education Authority, which runs both schemes, found that 67 per cent of participants were reported to be in employment or self-employment, and another 5 per cent in further study. Some 92 per cent of Springboard participants said they would recommend the scheme.


But one specialist IT recruitment firm says the tech sector is still somewhat reluctant to take on conversion graduates.

“The indications in the market right now are that tech companies are reluctant to hire conversion graduates versus four-year computer science graduates,” says Neil Sullivan, a partner at Dublin-based Stelfox. “Conversion courses, because they are relatively new, haven’t filtered across the majority of the tech sector.”

Although Stelfox doesn’t engage in graduate recruitment, its staff sometimes work with candidates they consider very promising, including one young man who had done an IT conversion course at UCD after he had struggled to find work as an architect. He finished top of his class and did all the right things in his job-search strategy, applying to more than 30 companies. He eventually got a good job as a software developer, but Sullivan was surprised at how difficult it was to get interviews for someone they considered a top-notch candidate, and some of the feedback he had got strongly hinted at a heavy bias against conversion graduates.

For Mark King, vice-president of engineering at education tech firm Fishtree, doing well in a conversion course would not be enough on its own to secure a programming job. “The reality is that most hiring managers, be they HR folks or engineering managers, would limit the hiring of IT conversion grads to specific roles in the organisation” such as IT support or testing.

“When you read about IT companies ranting about the massive shortage of IT grads in Ireland, what they are really referring to is a chronic shortage of computer programming grads. Unfortunately, IT conversion courses tend not to focus on this particular skill set, or, if they do, they only touch on it lightly.”

Top of the tree

Dr Mark Roantree, who chairs the graduate diploma in IT at DCU, says firms favouring a four-year degree graduate is to be expected, particularly for programming, which is “top of the tree” in the IT sector.

However, he insists that if conversion students do well in the core programming modules, doors will open for them, particularly given current skills shortages.“What I say to these students as they come in is, if they do well, they will get a good job. They will get a programming job. If they do badly or just scrape through, employers see that and they’ll be somewhere else in the IT sector.”

Joe Howley did a HDip IT conversion course at NUI Maynooth in 2001, but a lack of software jobs at the time forced him back into the construction industry. In 2012, he went to DCU to do a MEng in telecoms engineering as a way back into software. “I don’t think I would have found work with just the HDip on its own,” he says.

Since then he has been working on internships to get some experience, which has been useful, but he is now looking for paid work. “I think the job market is good but competitive, with programmers from all over Europe applying for jobs in Dublin.”

Howley says that more employers are asking candidates to do aptitude tests on specific programming languages and to demonstrate projects they have worked on.

“Simply having the academic qualifications, whether it be at Dip, master’s or BSc level, may not be enough for entry-level positions,” he says.

Craig Bell, who finished a two-year master's computer science conversion course at UCD last year, did well in his programming modules but also built a website to showcase a portfolio of programming projects. He did an internship for three months this year at youth charity, but after that he was unemployed for three months before being recruited in August on to the graduate programme at Realex Payments, an Irish online payment-processing firm that employs 170 people. He now works there as an integration and support analyst.

“Before I joined Realex, I was at breaking point. I actually felt like going on a holiday or something, or running away.”

He had been “sending out CVs everywhere” and was required to do aptitude tests as part of several job applications, which he disliked. His application to Realex also included an aptitude test, but “they still took me on because they could see that I had a year’s experience in customer care, customer service, and that I had potential for programming”.

Many people say this is a conversion graduate’s trump card: transferable experience and skills from another industry.

Although he enjoyed his course at UCD, Bell says it badly needed to have a work placement element. Students on the National College of Ireland’s IT conversion courses get work placements, and the college has managed to get them into a variety of firms as Java developers, web application developers and test engineers, says the college’s careers and opportunities officer, Caroline Kennedy.

“We don’t have students working in the tech-support roles – they were working in quality roles, but other institutions may have a different experience.”

Most of the work placements offered to students are with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) because they value transferable skills, says Kennedy.

Sullivan also believes SMEs are more open-minded about conversion graduates.

King disagrees. “Small start-ups do not have the luxury of bandwidth or time on their side to train up such grads, as time to market with the product or idea is of the essence. Mid-sized and larger firms tend to be the ones that can do this, as “the pace of product releases is a bit slower, therefore the team has more time to invest in training colleagues up on a particular skill set.”

Storm trooper

It was mostly large and medium-sized firms that hired the 2013 graduates of NUI Galway’s higher diploma in software design and development, including Sarah Kennedy, who now works as a software developer for Galway-based Storm Technology, which employs 80 people. Most of the graduates she kept in touch with got their jobs through work placements.

Kevin O’Shaughnessy, chief executive of travel software firm Indigo, which employs 15, has not yet hired a conversion graduate, but he has interviewed a few and is open-minded.“We demand very flexible, multidisciplinary staff, and I think that’s where the conversion courses may appeal.

“Above all else, whether it’s a college graduate or a Springboard graduate, the most important thing for me is attitude: the ability to take on a problem and the ability to solve it and work independently. That person could easily be from another discipline, so, to be brutally honest, we’ll take whoever fits that description.”