Is the UK IT profession crumbling at our feet like the car industry did?

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On Monday I blogged about a survey that a reader had created. The aim of the survey is to get to the bottom of the skills shortage debate in the UK.

There is a lot of disagreement on this.

There have been 41 respondents in a couple of days and we are beginning to paint a picture of the IT sector in the eyes of IT professionals.

The more respondents we get the better the more authoritative the survey will be. So we are calling on IT workers in the UK to fill in this quick questionnaire. It is truly independent, even of Computer Weekly, and was created by an IT professional

Just for a taster over a quarter of respondents don't expect to be in IT in five years' time.

But some of the comments left about the state of the industry for UK IT workers paint a Edvard Munch like painting. So if you want to scream about it, once again the survey here is your chance.

So here are a selection of the comments left in the questionnaire.


1 - "[The IT profession] is no longer a nice field to work in. I have even been forced to work for an Indian company at a poor salary, poorer working conditions and then let go the minute they no longer needed me. Yet the overseas workers carry on with a job once I'm gone.

Wonder why I just didn't become a truck driver - Cameron is not allowing those services to be imported despite no shortage."


2 - " The industry is going to disappear in some areas, e.g. wider adoption of cloud will remove whole tiers of the industry.!


3 - "I am a Java developer and have just been made redundant after spending 10 years with an Investment Bank because my role has moved offshore. Several colleagues were also made redundant for the same reason. There is no IT skills shortage in the UK, however many employers do not want to pay for these skills, they prefer instead to get cheaper less skilled resources from overseas."

4 - "In my experience, we have seen people leaving even during the recession. Recruiting good quality staff to replace them has been exceptionally difficult, with few good CVs and the more promising candidates receiving better offers from elsewhere. All of this seems to be evidence for a skills shortage."
 
Either that, or no-one wants to work for this company."


5 - "In my opinion, the so-called skills shortage has its roots in 2 areas.

1) Lack of good graduates with appropriate skills. UK Universities haven't been turning out graduates with the skills UK industry requires for years.

2) Lack of investment by UK companies in their own IT staff. I've worked in the industry as a technical consultant for over 20 years and I despair of the lack of good technical knowledge in many of my younger (under 30) colleagues."


6 - "The recession and Indian ICTs have hit me badly.  As a freelance, I have been out of a contract for 18 of the past 24 months.  I have been told on several occasions that an Indian has undercut me at a rate I cannot afford to meet.

Before 2009, I was never out of work."


7 - "I see no shortage of computing skills among the UK workforce. Rather, skilled British workers are being made redundant so that their tasks can be inadequately performed by unskilled workers (usually based overseas) at a fraction of both the cost and quality. This almost invariably results in a net increase in total cost for the business procuring the work."


8 - "15 years experience, zero training courses with some on the job stuff.

If employers trained or even considered similar skills there wouldn't be a shortage because I would get some work for instance."


9 - "I would like to have a roof over my head, (albeit rented as had to sell my house last year) and eat."


10 - "As a direct result of the recession, I had to take a poorly paid job outside IT. I am now finding it incredibly difficult to re-enter my preferred profession."

11 - "In my area (Finance IT) there is no shortage of capable UK residents or EU workers to do the job but for the past 10+ years, companies have been replacing UK workers with offshore or onshored Indian workers who lack the same skills and experience but, crucially, are 20-50% cheaper in gross terms.

The fact that they usually take far longer to do the same work and do it to a much poorer standard (in my personal experience and the anecdotal experience of others) - hence costing the company more in the long run than their UK equivalents - is ignored. The immediate bottom-line cost is all that matters in the short term view of modern corporates."


12 - "Personally, I think its becoming a self fulfilling prophecy. In-house promotion and training is virtually non existent; people move up the career ladder by moving from one employer to another. Hence, the employers accuse the employees/candidates of being disloyal and refuse to pay to train them. The employees then see their loyalty as being only one way with nothing coming back, so when someone offers them something better, they leave.

The race now, for the bottom line, to do as much as possible for as little, importing staff under ICT's plus Tier1's and a shameful open doors immigration policy is going to leave the UK's IT Industry going the same way as it's motor industry did thirty years ago. I hope to stay in it as long as I can, but the future, I'm finding, looks pretty dark."


13 - "The strategy of the IT board at the bank I work at is to off-shore much of the IT work leaving few opportunities on-shore. No new trainees in IT are being taken on. The net result of this is that only managers will be left on-shore and they will become technically illiterate over a period of time. This to my mind leaves the company exposed since the IT (and security I might add) is in the hands of a third party. Over time they will have the company over a barrel and be able to charge any price they wish."


16 - "Being just over 50 I expect to be squeezed out of my role in the next 12-24 months, after which I don't think I will be able to find any viable IT work so will either have to retire or change fields.

The shortage is only a shortage of people willing and able to undertake the work at (close to) NMW levels. Indigenous workers are unable to take these jobs on because of their financial commitments. Companies offshoring jobs either don't realise that they are also diminishing their customer base, or they don't care because it is a short-term move to improve the bottom line and gain brownie points, and the long-term implications are an SEP (Someone Else's Problem)."


18 - "The UK is drowning in IT staff brought in on ICTs.  I've seen entire development departments with not an English accent to be heard.

If a business only wants to pay £3.50 per hour, they are quite unlikely to find many English applicants. Indian IT firms hire only Indians.

I have also seen British staff forced to train ICT staff before they are made redundant - this is of course illegal."


18 - "Regarding offshoring - in our industry, IT outsourcing is explained as being required to stay competitive in the market.  That may be so, I can't say for sure.

Regarding the quality of offshore staff - clearly if the main driver for offshoring is lower costs then it's no surprise that most are graduates with little prior industry experience. In my experience, they pick up technical skills pretty quickly but are much slower in learning how to be an 'IT professional'. There is not the critical mass of more experienced colleagues showing them how to do the job.

Also, again in my experience, offshored staff are largely monitored and managed by metrics, which broadly you could argue is fair enough. However the concepts of duty of care, or taking ownership & responsibility for the systems you look after, are often lacking. I guess you get what you pay for.

I think there will still be a demand for good staff in the UK, but the more 'run of the mill' employees, I'm not sure. If businesses can get them cheaper elsewhere, that's surely where they'll go."

12 Comments

Accoring to the Wikipedia article about it the UK automtive industry has not collapsed, at least in terms of volume of vehicles produced. Ownership has transferred overseas but the UK still makes between one and half and two million vehicles a year, similar to volumes in the 1960's. Volumes now are lower than the peak, but then we have just had a recession.

I'm a hiring manager for an IT consultancy in London. We find that few applicants screened by recuitment agencies are worth a first interview (maybe 20%), few of them are worth a second interview (maybe 20%) and few of them are worth making an offer to. The most common reason for not making an offer is that candidates who appear to have many years experience as professional programmers are simply unable to write code in a convincing manner when sat in front of a computer.

@Keith:
"We find that few applicants screened by recuitment agencies are worth a first interview... "

Suggests you need to look at what kind of people your recruitment agencies are screening out e.g. because they're too old or don't have all 150 of the "mandatory" skills on the shopping list.

I would question the usefulness of expecting applicants to "write code in a convincing manner when sat in front of a computer" under interview conditions, as there's more to good software development than just typing code against the clock like a dumb coding monkey.

Of course, in the current jobs market, I'd be prepared to give it a go myself if required, although it would give me doubts about the nature of the organisation I'm applying to, but plenty of good developers might not necessarily perform at their best under such arbitrary and artificial conditions. In my experience, a thorough technical interview will tell you who knows their stuff and who doesn't, provided your organisation hasn't already fired all the experienced technical people who might make those expert judgements.

Keith's comment reminds me of when I was involved in recruiting for a technical role in the US a few years ago. We got some good cvs that ticked all the right boxes. So we interviewed and found that no one appeared to have even close to the skills and experience that they claimed. We got some more cvs and interviewed had the same problem. I suppose in hindsight I probably thought it was difficult to find people with the right skills.

We eventually were passed cvs that had failed the filtering. Some of these people actually had the skills they said on their cvs. We eventually recuited someone who had recently been made redundant after spending a long time at one employer. Their cv was not well written and did not have the keywords we were looking for but they fitted perfectly, and they had all the skills we were looking for and a lot more.

I guess there are some people who are good at writing and tailoring their cv to get an interview, and even they do not have the skills then they hope they might get lucky.

I also suspect that good techies are not good cv writers and tend to be accurate rather than selling themselves.
T

Hi Karl,

A less bad analogy might be with the British motorcycle industry which not only crumbled but collapsed completely and vanished entierly for decades.

Some of the discussion around this issue seems to be muddled by sloppy vocabulary. As a hiring manager and a project manager I find that there is a severe shortage of IT (specifically programming) skill in the market. What there is no shortage of is warm bodies to sit in front of keyboards and do something that looks like programming.

This shortage of skill enables this business model: hire skilled programmers, or hire people with potential to become such and train them, and then sell their services at a premium. The cheap body-shops are meeting the demand in the market for cheap bodies. Competing with them would be silly on that basis, so don't. Instead, solve problems for clients that a cheap bodyshop cannot solve. Supply and demand apply here as elsewhere. Suppliers of a scarse resource (genuinely good programmers who can solve tough problems) can charge more. Suppliers of an abundant resource, not so much. So, that model does work but not at large scale.

One interpretation of the collapse of the motorcycle industry in this country is that it became complacent. We came to make bad bikes that cost a lot of money. When people became able to buy good bikes (mainly form Japan) for little money the UK manufactuers made all the wrong moves. With the results that we see.

The comparison breaks down at the point where we realise that many, many purchasers of IT effort seem to be quite content with poor quality work (late, over budget, missing features) so long as the weekly burn rate is low enough. An interesting question might be how that came to pass--and what did working programmers do to help it happen?

@Keith
"poor quality work (late, over budget, missing features)"

It is true that this is used to describe many IT projects. Many projects are delivered late, over budget and with reduced functionality compared with the original plans and business case (or not delivered at all). As this happens continually, someone should be questioning the planning methodology that is used in the orginal plans.

Why do the original plans continue to be so out of sync with reality? If planners continue to estimate that it will take 1 day to do something when it usually takes 2 days then why not improve the planning methodology instead of saying "the estimates were correct but those implementing the plans were not sufficiently skilled"?

Of course, if decision makers were told the truth before the start of a project then the project would probably be canned. There are many vested interests that want a project to be approved. I have heard managers demanding that the estimates are reduced by x% to justify the project.

This is especially true when outsources and consultancies are involved. They usually under estimate the true cost because they want to win the contract. However, they are especially skilled at making sure the client pays the true cost plus their profit margin in the end.

The same fallacy is used to justify using the cheap body shops. A project is estimated to take x mandays, so using resources that are half the cost will be a significant saving. In these cases, the estimates are even more unrealistic when using inexperienced resources based 4000 miles away. I was told by a BA at a major retailer that PMs had been told that they can double the estimates when using offshore staff. The PMs were unhappy at this and had been asking to more than triple the estimates based on previous experience.

Keith:
" As a hiring manager and a project manager I find that there is a severe shortage of IT (specifically programming) skill in the market. What there is no shortage of is warm bodies to sit in front of keyboards and do something that looks like programming."

What business sector do you work in? And what is your own technical background - e.g. how do you distinguish between the good and bad programmers?

Your account sounds nothing like most of the places I've worked over the last 20 years. As a contractor, I have work with highly skilled IT staff in all kinds of sectors ranging from public sector work to telecoms and software houses. Of course, it's possible that I'm just another dumb coding monkey who does "something that looks like programming" and doesn't know any better, but my experience of numerous workplaces - and the experience of my contractor colleagues - over the last 10 years indicates that skilled, experienced IT workers are being systematically forced out of the workplace by idiot managers keen to replace them with cheap but unskilled imports who fail to deliver the results. There is consequently a small market for skilled contractors to come in and rescue such projects, which is what I have been doing in recent years, but this is a crazy way to run any industry. Finally, do you really believe that the thousands of skilled and experienced IT staff fired by UK companies over the last few years were all useless? Or is it possible that you need to look more closely at your failing recruitment process?

Keith:
" As a hiring manager and a project manager I find that there is a severe shortage of IT (specifically programming) skill in the market. What there is no shortage of is warm bodies to sit in front of keyboards and do something that looks like programming."

What business sector do you work in? And what is your own technical background - e.g. how do you distinguish between the good and bad programmers?

Your account sounds nothing like most of the places I've worked over the last 20 years. As a contractor, I have work with highly skilled IT staff in all kinds of sectors ranging from public sector work to telecoms and software houses. Of course, it's possible that I'm just another dumb coding monkey who does "something that looks like programming" and doesn't know any better, but my experience of numerous workplaces - and the experience of my contractor colleagues - over the last 10 years indicates that skilled, experienced IT workers are being systematically forced out of the workplace by idiot managers keen to replace them with cheap but unskilled imports who fail to deliver the results. There is consequently a small market for skilled contractors to come in and rescue such projects, which is what I have been doing in recent years, but this is a crazy way to run any industry. Finally, do you really believe that the thousands of skilled and experienced IT staff fired by UK companies over the last few years were all useless? Or is it just faintly possible that you need to look more closely at your failing recruitment process?

The analogy to the UK car industry was mine and I absolutely stand by it. Although granted, the initial symptoms and causes may have been different, the end result is likely to be the same.

Yes, there is still vehicle production in the UK and thanks to careful management they are still profitable. But owned and run by who? Take a look: Mini @ Oxford=BMW=German. Toyota @ Burnaston=Japanese. Jaguar Land Rover=Indian. Honda @ Swindon= Japanese. Lotus=Malaysian. Vauxhall=American. Nissan/Renault @ Sunderland=Franco/Japanese. Rolls Royce & Bentley, both German. Aston Martin=Kuwaiti (if I recall correctly...). Etcetera, etcetera.

How many UK owned car manufacturers are there left now, let alone volume car makers? None. And look at who was lost: Rootes, Alvis, Leyland, Rover, TVR, Austin, Triumph... the list goes on and on and on.

Why? Because they were unable to compete. They could not sell their product competitively enough and someone else can do it cheaper.

Now look at the ownership of the UK's major IT players, software houses, service companies, outsourcers and other major industry players. With a few honourable exceptions, who are left that are British? Not that many.

How did both industries get to this point? Globalisation, lack of vision and inward investment from the top down, ignorance of the competition and the race for the bottom line, amongst other factors.

Look at what happened over the course of the last thirty years, see the similarities and tell me honestly you dont see the same end result.

@Matt,
I've been a professional programmer for 15 years, working on everything from GSM handset firmware to global enterprise systems. While I am now mainly a manager I do also still cut code for paying customers. My clients range from .com firms to academic publishing houses to pharmaceutical research labs to heavy engineering firms to investment banks.

I don't agree that our recruitment process is failing. Our false positive rate is zero, which is very important to us as we a re professional services firm. We have roughly doubled the size of our team over the last 18 months, we plan to hire more people this year.

We use a multi-stage process including a lengthy "tell us what you know" technical interview, a "what kind of person are you?" interview, and a written test of programming knowledge. I'm pretty sure our process works because everyone we do hire does an excellent job for our clients, who come back to us again and again. I just wish that I could hire a lot more people like that, more quickly and more cheaply.

@Keith:

Thanks for the extra info. I have to say I'm mystified by your difficulties in finding good recruits in the current climate. It sounds like you are in a more engineering-oriented sector, where particular requirements apply, but even so, with organisations like BT laying off thousands of permanent/contract technical IT staff in the last year or so, I'd have thought there should be a significant pool of skilled/experienced people with the skills you need. I guess with Google aiming to recruit significant numbers of staff - presumably from the same pool - in Europe this year, you'll be up against even more competition for suitable candidates. Best of luck, anyway!

Automotive industry is one of the largest industry in the market according to me still their are many autos in running in the uk roads so collapsing of such industries will take some time i think
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This page contains a single entry by Karl Flinders published on January 12, 2011 11:59 AM.

Are businesses creating an IT skills gap by reducing training? was the previous entry in this blog.

Is working in the UK IT profession all stick and no carrot, or is it a myth purveyed by the unskilled? is the next entry in this blog.

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