Moves to fill thousands of IT vacancies

Edward Fennell reports on attempts to remedy the lack of IT skills that are holding back a quarter of British firms.

FIGURES from the science, manufacturing, chemical, oil and engineering industries show that they still employ millions of people and make an enormous contribution to the country’s economy. But while they are traditional industries, they still need plenty of fresh blood, new thinking and a constant flow of new technology and IT skills.

The challenge for the sector skills councils in these industries, Cogent, e-skills UK and Semta, is that our education system has faltered in its mission to teach and enthuse potential young scientists, engineers and technologists. No wonder the councils are as concerned at what goes on in the classroom as in the workplace.

IN THE early 1980s (when a word processor was a great rarity) it was forecast, to some scepticism, that IT skills, at some level, would be needed by almost everybody in the workforce. Now it has come true. Even stand-up comics sit down in front of a word processor to write their gags. As Karen Price, the chief executive officer of e-skills UK, says: “The entire economy is dependent on having a workforce with the right IT skills.”

Yet, while we understand the importance of IT, this does not mean that UK employers are geared up to handle it. For example, more than one third (34 per cent) of businesses with job vacancies for IT professional staff say that these vacancies are hard to fill.

This has a direct impact on the business effectiveness of the companies concerned. More than three quarters of them report that the gaps in their IT workforce have a damaging impact on their operations in terms, for example, of delaying the development of new products or meeting customer service objectives. In some cases this means that business is lost as clients decide to source from elsewhere.

The problems among IT professionals are amplified across the rest of the working population — the non-IT specialists who use IT regularly as an adjunct to their job.

About a quarter of British businesses say that they suffer from a lack of proficiency in everyday IT skills. In effect, this is the equivalent of saying that their people lack basic skills because that is how important IT is in today’s working world.

So how can these gaps be filled? The sector skills agreement for IT, published this year by e-skills UK, provides plenty of possible answers. Called an IT skills improvement plan, the agreement is designed, over a three-year period, to close the IT productivity gap with our leading international competitors.

Fortunately, e-skills UK is not alone. It also has the backing of big corporations such as Cisco Systems, IBM, British Airways, Ford and EDS, which have agreed to invest in the action plan. One of the biggest challenges is to remedy what is now being done either poorly or in an outdated way.

By way of example, Price points out that in higher education, degree courses need to align better with industry’s needs: “What we really need now is a very different skill mix from what we have been used to if we are to remain competitive. In particular we need ‘hybrid people’ who have a mix of business and technology skills.”

Changes are under way. From this autumn the first IT employer-designed degrees, BSc (Hons) in information technology management for business (ITMB) have been running at the Universities of Reading, Greenwich, Central England and Northumbria. Twelve similar courses should be on offer before 2018, benefiting up to 1,000 undergraduates a year.

Meanwhile, for generalists, Price holds great hopes for the new ITQ qualification. This will provide an all-purpose award so that people will be able to gain credit for a range of IT qualifications within a common framework. As a way of providing coherence to a very diverse field it will help to ensure that everybody can develop skills in the use of IT in a way that suits their job.

ONE of the big disappointments over the past ten years within the education system has been the failure to persuade more girls to engage with information technology or to consider it as a career as it is still seen as a “boy thing”.

Currently, only one in five IT professionals in the UK is a woman. But this could change. A huge programme is being launched in 3,600 schools around England to encourage girls to consider a career in IT.

The focus is an out-of-school programme called Computer Clubs for Girls (CC4G) and the target is to interest 150,000 girls aged between ten and fourteen. “CC4G fires up girls about technology in ways that are relevant to them, through music, fashion and design,” says e-skills UK.

“The clubs are run voluntarily by schools, where organisers and facilitators give up their time outside school hours to give girls the opportunity to enjoy a range of tailored e-learning activities.

“In this age, girls must become proficient in IT. It is fundamental to the efficient operation of the large majority of organisations.

“Therefore, to attract girls’ attention to IT activities, it is necessary to tackle the issue from another stance.” CC4G hopes to provide that new perspective.

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