It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the long-awaited report on the UK skills market for IT professionals by the E-Skills National Training Organisation (NTO). This is the most comprehensive study of its kind and it will underpin efforts by the Government and industry to tackle IT skills shortages that can damage the use of IT in business.
The survey, the first in a series of annual reports, was designed to gather a detailed picture of the UK workforce. The long-term goal of the study is to align the supply of IT professionals to the demand from industry. Without a foundation of solid data, any attempt to equip IT professionals with the right skills for the future would be a shot in the dark.
The 85-page IT and Communications Professionals in the UK survey provides the first realistic picture of the UK's IT workforce. It covers job roles, gender and experience across industry sectors and regions of the UK.
The report also spotlights the hot IT skills in demand, and gives a breakdown of the job vacancies by industry and region.
And while much of its findings on the skills shortage will come as no surprise, it does uncover widespread complacency on key issues such as training and the perceived competency of information and communications technology (ICT) staff by their employers.
Nearly 4,000 organisations with five or more employees took part in the survey. The respondents were typically those responsible for IT within the organisation or for personnel activities.
"It is probably one of the biggest employer surveys for IT and telecoms," said Andrew Harvey Price, a member of the research team for E-Skills NTO. "You need to identify the demand side of industry [for the ICT workforce]. The big picture of this did not exist before."
However, the survey was conducted between December 2000 and February 2001 - before the economic downturn in the UK IT industry really took effect.
At that time there were some 908,000 ICT professionals working in the UK for 157,000 establishments. The public sector employed the largest number of IT staff, accounting for nearly one-quarter (24%) of the total of UK establishments employing five or more staff. It was followed in joint second place by sales and leisure and IT and telecommunications with 17% each.
But when other factors such as contractors are included in the league table the IT and telecoms sector leapt ahead of public services. It employed 39% of the ICT workforce - more than double the amount employed by the public sector (18%).
Financial services - widely regarded as the IT industry trailblazer - employed the fewest IT staff with 6% on these criteria.
The typical IT professional is male and works full time on a permanent contract. More than three-quarters (76%) of staff employed by respondents had three or more years' experience in their current roles.
But despite the well-documented gender imbalance there were regional pockets where the proportion of female IT staff was significantly higher. In Northern Ireland women accounted for nearly half (45%) of the ICT workforce while in the North East they made up 42% of IT professionals.
One in three IT staff (340,000) work in an internal operations role, followed by development (236,000) and customer services (110,000).
IT and telecoms businesses suffered most from the skills shortage, with one in four hit (26% and 27%) by shortages.
Vacancies within companies for ICT professionals were greatest in the development and internal operations functions. Together these two categories accounted for 18,000 vacancies - almost two-thirds of all vacancies.
A rump of employers (6%) admitted they had "hard-to-fill" vacancies for ICT staff. Posts for technicians/ engineers were the most common hard-to-fill vacancies.
IT staff proficiency
On a more controversial note, the survey asked employers to assess the proportion of their IT workforce they believed to be fully proficient. This judgement involved respondents looking at all the skills gaps in their organisations to evaluate whether the ICT staff could meet business objectives.
Overall, skills gaps existed in 42% of the companies taking part. So, two-fifths of UK organisations employing ICT professionals believe their ICT teams are not fully up to the job.
Almost three-quarters (71%) of establishments with gaps in ICT skills said they experienced disruptions to the operation and development of their business as a result of shortfalls in the proficiency of ICT staff.
However, on average employers said 85% of their staff were fully proficient in their current role. Harvey said this proficiency rating was high compared to other industries.
"The effect of not having proficient staff has some fairly horrific impacts," he said. These include delays in the development of new products and services (30%) and difficulty in meeting goals in customer service.
A lack of experience in new technologies was the main reason given by respondents for the lack of proficiency and was cited by two-thirds (67%) of establishments experiencing skills gaps. Few employers, however, were able to specify exactly what technical skills their IT staff lacked.
But what should be done to ease the skills shortage? Increased staff training is the answer to skill gaps, according to three out of four employers (74%). But there are different approaches to tackling the skills gaps between industry sectors.
IT and telecoms companies, for instance, were more likely to combat skills shortages by relocating work or changing work practices.
Crucially, though, employers seem to be paying lip service to the need for more training. Just under half (46%) of UK establishments employing IT staff did not have a formal training budget or plan. This adds up to more than 300,000 people working in 72,000 organisations.
Training arrangements were more likely to be formalised in companies with 250 or more staff. Here, 80% of companies had formalised training arrangements, compared to 49% of small employers.
The breadth and depth of the E-Skills NTO survey is a landmark for the IT workforce. It is the first serious attempt to understand the IT labour force and align the supply of skills with demand.
The data is already a year old but it will prove invaluable in launching a concerted attempt to tackle the skills shortage that can hamper the effective use of computers in business. Employers and the Government now have to begin the hard work.