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The proportion of youngsters between the ages of 15 and 24 working in IT plummeted from 11.7% to 6.7% of the workforce between 1995 and 2003, an international study led by the University of Cambridge has revealed.
The findings suggest that IT employers are failing to attract school leavers and graduates into the profession, leaving them at risk of skills shortages in the future, the research found.
"This is a worrying development for employers who see young graduates as supplying the energy, creativity and cutting-edge IT skills essential to the survival of their enterprises. It is also a concern for the long-term future of the industry, which has tended to rely on a constant flow of younger workers," the study said.
The UK situation contrasts sharply with Germany, where the proportion of young people in the profession increased from 4.4% to 11.4% of the total workforce between 1998 and 2002. This follows heavy investment by the German government in creating IT apprenticeship programmes.
"If we in Europe want to be the leading knowledge economy, we have to devise polices and management practices that nurture talent at an early, entry-level age, and upskill those workers so they have something to contribute in the future," said Kerry Platman, senior research associate at the University of Cambridge.
The decline in youngsters entering the profession has been accompanied by an exodus of older IT workers, reducing the available skills pool further.
The study found that although the proportion of IT staff in the UK over the age of 45 grew by 7.7% between 1995 and 2003, only 20% of IT professionals were over 45 in 2003. Only 3.2% of IT professionals in the UK are over 55, compared to 3.7% in the Netherlands and 5.4% in Germany.
"It looks like it is very difficult to survive in the IT industry with increasing age. We do not know whether it is due to discrimination or the cost of upskilling, but it does suggest that it is a very difficult profession in which to age," said Platman.
In some cases, IT specialists in their fifties have had to take jobs stacking supermarket shelves because employers are unwilling to hire them, Platman said.
Offshore outsourcing may offer a temporary solution to skills gaps but does not provide a long-term solution, the study said.
"The IT industry is some way off the innovative human resources policies that are are needed to capitalise on the aging workforce. Employers appear to be heavily dependent on younger men to meet their recruitment needs. Women and older workers remain unrepresented," it said.