A new government initiative aims to attract 40,000 more people to the IT industry E-Skills UK aims to give small firms a voice in Whitehall and boost number of IT staff.
The government cannot resist tinkering with education, particularly when it comes to IT. There has been a succession of organisations, from industry-led bodies to national training organisations, each devoted to solving the UK's IT skills problems.
A glance through the back issues of Computer Weekly shows that the problems faced by employers have not changed much despite years of political fiddling. Skills shortages, an oversupply of graduates, and a declining number of women entering the profession, still top the agenda. But employers are optimistic that the creation of 23 sector skills councils, will make a real difference.
One of the first of the new councils, E-Skills UK, received its approval from the government today (8 April). It will act as a voice for every employer with IT, telecoms and contact centre professionals in its workforce.
The organisation will receive £1m a year from the government for the next three years, doubling its budget. Because it is guaranteed funding, the money can be invested in projects that offer longer-term benefits for employers. It expects to generate another £4m a year from donations, membership fees and the supply of training services to business.
Karen Price, chief executive of E-Skills UK, describes the creation of the sector skills councils for IT as a significant "step change". "It will mean that the employer's voice becomes embedded in government policy and employers will have influence over the direction of government, universities and education," she said.
The priorities for the new body will be largely determined by three advisory panels of employers representing IT suppliers, IT users and telecoms firms. The user panel includes luminaries such as Sinclair Stockman, group CIO at BT, Paul Coby, CIO at British Airways, and Maggie Miller, business transformation director at Sainsbury's. Each acts as a representative for their industry sector rather than their firm, and will feed into the sector skills council's views from a wide variety of industry groups.
Price plans to extend this influence further by creating groups of employers who will feed back to E-Skills UK, either from regional groups or from groups assembled on a project-by-project basis. "We have many other companies involved apart from the boards," she said.
Surprisingly, employers have shown little interest in identifying and planning for the next big skills shortages. There is a feeling, said Price, that it is more important to focus on the problems that lie behind this apathy rather than tackling specific skills gaps.
"The past has demonstrated that focusing on particular technological skills is not the most effective way. There are lots of just-in-time training schemes that will address shortages when they happen. Much more important is the willingness and availability of people to up-skill," Price said.
More fundamentally, E-Skills UK has recognised that, as more basic programming work goes off-shore, IT professionals in the UK will need to differentiate themselves by developing "added value" business and management skills. This will mean new approaches to training and a closer liaison between businesses, universities and colleges to develop relevant courses.
"The idea is to work with intermediaries, whether that will be employers, universities or further education; in fact, all the stakeholders to press the skills agenda. We need to pick up the employer baton and run with it," said Price.
One approach would be to replace the existing system of vocational training with a new system based on courses and qualifications that divide learning into bite-sized chunks. Professionals would be able to learn the skills they need, when they need them, without disrupting their day-to-day work. And they would be able to add all their bite-sized courses together to obtain a recognised qualification.
E-Skills UK is working with universities to develop a new IT curriculum for undergraduates, where the new syllabus will be one third technical, one third business and one third communications skills. Price plans to pilot the syllabus with one or two universities, and if it proves to be successful, to encourage its adoption across the country.
Training business people to understand IT is equally important. This will mean ensuring that any degree, from music to business studies, contains an IT module. "It might be presented by a visiting lecturer from industry for example, but the objective is that all managers and leaders of the future will need to understand the impact of technology on their business," said Price.
Small and medium-sized companies will be a priority in the work of E-Skills UK. Each of the boards will have one representative from a small company, but Price insists that every board member understands the importance of up-skilling employees in smaller firms, which account for 90% of the companies in the UK and employ 70% of the workforce.
She plans to work with the DTI's Small Business Service and to use her influence with the UK's nine regional development agencies and the regional assemblies in Scotland and Wales to encourage them to invest resources in developing IT skills and expertise. Persuading just one regional development agency to invest £3m in IT skills for local firms could make a big difference.
In return for backing E-Skills UK, the government is expecting a return from employers in both time and resources. "What is clear is that those sectors that invest will reap better value from the public purse," Price said. E-Skills UK hopes to win charitable status so that employers can benefit from tax exemptions if they make donations to its work.
To discover whether E-Skills UK is achieving its targets, Price is arranging to survey thousands of school children's attitudes to IT, from school age through to their first job. Their responses to the initiatives, such as girls' computer clubs in schools and open days at IT employers, will be gathered to assess the perceptions of IT as a career.
"I am confident that these targets are achievable. A lot of thought has gone into them," said Price. "The only question is whether they will prove to be sufficiently stretching."
E-Skills UK has set three main targets for the next three years:
- To encourage 40,000 people who would normally not consider a career in IT or telecoms to enter the profession
- To put 15,000 people through new employer-designed learning courses at schools, colleges and universities
- To encourage 1,000 companies to increase their investment in IT training.
Industry's view of E-Skills UK
Richard Thwaite, Director of IT, Ford Europe
"We can't always make our voices heard, and the Ford voice is quite small, so by bringing together a number of different companies, E-Skills UK can have a more significant impact. The reality is that Ford's IT needs are not very different to Sainsbury's, BP's or British Airways'. It is the ability to influence that is most important."
Maggie Miller, Business transformation director and chief information officer
"One of the big strengths of E-Skills is the amount of involvement from industry. There are people from the employers' and the suppliers' side, such as Dell and IBM, who have allocated some very influential senior people who all have a vested interest in its success."
Sinclair Stockman, Group chief information officer
"If you look at the companies involved, such as IBM, EDS, Barclays and the Inland Revenue, you have probably got some of the heaviest-hitting CIOs in the country. The reason they are there is that they really do believe this is an investment that will help the UK economy. "