This is a grim time to be an IT graduate, with a 16% record unemployment in the sector, according to the Higher Education Careers Service Unit. A growing number, however, are taking a different route into the working world via paid training companies.
One such operation, IT services provider FDM – one of the UK's largest graduate recruiters – is doubling the places in its Academy to 1,000 next year. So how is it bucking the trend? "There is a bigger demand than ever for IT professionals as the baby boomer generation, that powered early computing, is retiring and needs to be replaced," says chief executive Rod Flavell. Successful applicants – there were 15,000 for 500 places this year – undergo 12 weeks of intensive training, then spend two years working for one of its 200 clients worldwide.
The catch is, those who sign up must commit to a two-year contract with FDM on a salary of up to £27,000, otherwise they must pay back all, or part, of the £20,000 training costs. They must also pay their own living costs during the initial training, and the specific area of that training is decided by FDM. "This is not the world of choice," admits Flavell.
This inflexibility has infuriated some contributors to online forums who reckon that graduates should preserve their liberty and market themselves more lucratively. The difficulty is finding a receptive market, especially for a new graduate with little work experience, and an attractive income – the average IT graduate salary is £22,500.
Susan Hughes, a careers adviser with the government-funded service Next Step, says corporate graduate schemes offer enormous advantages. "Trainees increase their expertise and value in a particular area of IT, and gain valuable experience of the world of work," she says. "Often, schemes will expose trainees to a range of projects enabling them to develop discipline, a sense of responsibility, and increased confidence and focus on their career."
Students who complete the FDM course can expect to get a job at the end of it, either with the clients they have worked with – many are FTSE 100 companies – or with FDM itself.
A degree in computing is not a necessary qualification for a place. "There's no subject we wouldn't accept," says Flavell. "We've had oceanographers, musicians and literature students, although if one degree guarantees you a place, it's pure maths."
Jay Carey won an FDM-sponsored prize for best development project in his final year of a computer science degree at the University of Brighton and was automatically awarded a place on the training scheme in 2008. He's now a net developer for UBS in New York. "I was able to progress quite quickly on to some of the things I hadn't covered at university, and have both Java and C Sharp on my CV," he says.
Many companies operate their own graduate training schemes, but Flavell reckons there's a need for more like FDM's. "We call it the long-interview process," he says. "It gives us two years to decide whether trainees are worth investing in long-term ... we can tolerate initial flaws and rely on potential. Most companies can't afford to do that."
FDM Academy programmes start weekly, so graduates can apply at any time. Until he won his place, Carey assumed his fate was a low-key computer-related job in Brighton: "Had you asked me two years ago where I thought I would be now, I'm guessing I wouldn't have said living in New York and working as a consultant developer on the largest trade floor in the world."