We need to sort out the skills gap in IT

Ben Cranham explains what has become of the jobs landscape for IT professionals, and how he thinks the situation can be improved.

by Ben Cranham
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

What skills gap? Let’s focus on skills development instead  For as long as I can remember the IT industry has been complaining about a skills gap in the industry, frustrated at an education system which leads students to choose ‘softer’ subjects over more ‘serious’ STEM degrees. What surprises some is that according to the latest statistics, IT and computer science graduates are more likely to be unemployed six months after they graduate than graduates in any other subject, a trend that has persisted for many years. If that is indeed the case, how can the UK IT industry have a skills gap and, if it does, how can we improve things? 

The problem: underinvestment and profiteering 

There are a number of factors contributing to a lack of skilled, experienced and qualified individuals in the IT industry, and only one of these is the education system. It is a combination of a training gap or skills misalignment and a market in which employers have struggled to meet the rising cost of employing the best-trained technology talent.  

During most of the 2000s, the UK IT industry benefited from an influx of skilled and hardworking IT talent from the new EU countries, many of whom were attracted by comparatively higher wages, allowing employers to contract senior staff at a lower cost. 

Over time, as these workers acclimatised, they felt the cost of living in the UK, meaning they either required higher wages to afford the lifestyle they aspired to, or they chose to return home - the supply of low-cost talent soon dried up. At the same time, the trend for outsourcing and off-shoring first level IT support and application development meant that organisations failed to support the next generation of IT specialists coming through the ranks.  

It is for reasons of underinvestment in training and career development and too much focus on short-term cost cutting that experienced and skilled IT professionals are now harder to find.  

The education industry can only do so much  

What can we do to fix the problem? As stated previously there are other issues aside from education, but it is certainly not irrelevant. While many industry insiders have complained that IT lessons offered over the past 15 years have done little more than teach students basic office skills, removing any control over what is taught is unlikely to fix the issues around quality and relevance. At the same time, working in the IT industry is not only about technical skills, it is also about people skills and knowledge of business, something that a coding course alone cannot teach.  

The government has increased funding in higher apprenticeships, which offer vocational training in skilled industries. These apprenticeships give school-leavers the chance to undertake study while applying what they learn in a work context, meaning that by the time these are completed, individuals have both the technical and business skills required. With university fees increasing, giving young people work-based alternatives is something which should receive even more focus and investment. 

Beyond the academic sphere, life-long training and development is key  

Expecting a graduate to come out of university well-rounded and honed in the exact skills required to fulfil the requirements of his or her first job is unrealistic, not least because every organisation has different needs. This approach takes time, money, and effort, and there are disappointments on the way.  But it is the right one to provide better long-term stability for firms rather than relying on external recruitment and training processes alone.  

Today’s news is tomorrow’s history 

Things move fast in the technology world, more so than in any other industry. As technology innovation continues to accelerate, skills become quickly outdated, which makes a life-long learning and development programme so important. As employers we have to accept that it is part of our responsibility to put in place long-term career development programmes to keep staff happy, loyal and incentivised. This will not only benefit employees, but will also give organisations a competitive advantage. As we are going through continued economic turmoil and hardship, the government should take steps to ensure currently unemployed IT workers are able to keep developing their skills to stay up-to-date with the industry norm or risk falling behind for good.  

We cannot blame the education sector for giving us graduates without the right skills if we do not show them exactly what we require. We also have a duty to do our best to inspire and show the next generation what benefits a career in technology can bring. This is how we can ensure the UK’s technology sector remains vibrant, innovative and continues to attract the best minds.

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