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SMEs face skills shortage

Bill Goodwin
Big companies are laying off IT staff in a slow job market but small firms still can't find the skills they need.

Small companies are struggling to fill IT vacancies despite the downturn in the rest of the IT jobs market, amid emerging signs that the UK is developing a two-speed IT economy.

Firms employing fewer than 100 people are reporting significant shortages of job applicants with systems support and development skills, even as large firms are cutting their IT workforces.

The discrepancy is revealed in a survey of more than 800 firms by the national training organisation E-Skills UK, which has been re-analysed for Computer Weekly to show the impact of company size on the jobs market.

Its findings highlight a significant gap in training provision for IT workers to provide the all-round skills that smaller companies need.

The E-Skills UK data, taken from a poll in February as the current slowdown peaked, showed that 17% of small firms were short of systems support and administration staff, compared with about a 6% shortfall in businesses employing 500 or more. The same figures show that more small businesses planned to increase their IT staffing than large companies and fewer than 1% of small companies planned to reduce IT headcount, compared to 11% of large firms.

The findings point to a gap in training, with colleges, universities and private sector training companies failing to turn out IT professionals with the all-round skills small companies need.

The Federation of Small Businesses described education and training provision for IT staff for small businesses as variable. "Small businesses are reliant on higher and further education to provide people for the workforce. We would like to see local collages liaise with business communities, but the provision is patchy," it said.

Experts believe that small firms need to be offered bite-sized training so that staff can learn work-related IT skills without completing full IT qualifications.

Andrew Harvey-Price, researcher at E-Skills UK, said provision for small businesses should be improved. "What they probably need is simple chunks of learning. A complete IT qualification is not what they need."

Steve Gilroy, vice-president of IT employers' training association, Comptia, said education and training is not geared to the needs of small firms. "A small business does not need a network administrator, and a helpdesk person, they need a jack-of-all trades," he said.

E-Skills UK's findings are supported by data shortly to be released by Comptia and IDC, and the Computer Weekly/SSP jobs survey, which reveals that demand for IT support skills remains strong despite the general downturn.

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