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Why PA's are up for IT

The Guardian
Great organisers, good communicators, excellent problem-solvers. Secretaries are just what the computer industry needs, says Helena Pozniak

Before you stifle a yawn at the prospect of a career switch to IT, consider this. There's a dearth of talent and an expected glut of (better-paid) jobs. You might be paid to retrain. Your skills - business knowledge, communication, organisation, problem-solving etc - mean you're more than halfway there already. Don't think nerdy software and backroom techies, think of a pacy, vibrant industry.

"The beauty of PAs and secretaries is that they already know the business inside out - companies fall down when they hire technical people who have no skills outside their area," says Colin Steed, chief executive of the Institute of IT Training.

"In my experience, PAs are wonderful organisers," agrees Maxine Mayer, project manager at the e-skills National Training Organisation. "They also have excellent customer services skills - these are totally transferable."

Interested? You should consider your options. But where among the vast array of IT careers should you focus, and how can you get there? There are jobs for every aptitude from the more technically minded, such as website and multimedia design, IT maintenance and administration, to the softer skilled jobs, such as training and support. "IT services - engineering and the like - have a horrible image," says Mayer. "Some see it as oily, greasy, heavy work - it's none of those things, and women can do it."

Beware of rushing blindly into expensive training without exploring cheaper options, warns Roisin Woolnough of Computer Weekly. IT skills can date quickly and you can often glean more from your own - and colleagues' - computers. "Everyone is talking about a skills shortage, but training is no good without experience," she cautions. "Experience counts more than degrees or qualifications. Why not speak to your employers, explain that you're interested, and get training at the expense of the company."

Which is what Louise Jeffrey, former PA to the head of Random House, did when she felt she'd outgrown her administrational duties. At a time when the publishers were developing the website, she stepped in with enthusiasm and an insider's knowledge of the company. She's now web administrator for Random House and Transworld - working alongside a webmaster to produce a site that promotes books and attracts new users.

"I report to marketing, but I need a good knowledge of software and computers to do my job." Jeffrey trained on various design programmes such as FrontPage, Dreamweaver and Photoshop among others, finding evening courses that her employer was prepared to fund. "I've always been computer literate and a great fan of the internet," she says. "As in secretarial work, there are deadlines - and a certain amount of stress that goes with that, but I love the creative side of it. I love being in an industry that's constantly changing." Don't be afraid of technology, she advises - and spend time playing around with your computer - that's how you learn. She suggests a quiet word with your personnel department, which should give confidential advice.

Former receptionist Ingrid Jonkman has chosen a different route into IT - and one open to most PAs with good communications skills. She's working alongside colleagues with IT degrees - on a diagnostic help-desk service offered by the IT management firm Pink Elephant. "I'd grown bored with my job, and I had to convince [Pink Elephant] that I was really determined to move."

More important than acquiring technical skills - the majority of which Jonkman has learnt on the job or through computer-based training - was to prove she has the customer skills required to handle irate calls and provide over-the-phone advice. "I'm never bored now, and there are so many different directions and managerial openings in this area."

If your company is too small, or cannot fund your retraining, don't stop there. You could take advantage of up to £200 (or 80% of the cost of the course) offered by the government as part of the individual learning account (register at www.my-ila.com) to acquire IT skills. But research what skills are current and take advice from your local colleges of higher or further education. You can also take certified courses from companies such as Cisco and Microsoft - but again check what's in demand. Decide whether you merely need to top up your skills or retrain completely. To qualify as an IT trainer will cost around £1,000, says Colin Steed, but may you may be able to get funding from companies looking for relevant staff. "Companies are crying out for these people," he says.

Useful sites:

The National Training Organisation (www.e-skillsnto.org.uk) The British Computer Society, www.bcs.org.uk The Institute of IT Training, www.iitt.org.uk

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