Information technology is integral to modern life, and it is essential that the UK supports and grows a digital economy, which will generate hundreds of thousands of new jobs in coming years. Cliff Saran and Jenny Williams report on education, training and career development within the IT sector.
IT is the hidden force that makes a smartphone useful, keeps aircraft in the skies, puts products on shelves and is behind everything from the Olympics to the tax office.
Recognising the need to nurture, develop and reskill individuals to support the digital economy, Computer Weekly is embarking on a programme of content called "IT Works" to provide a resource for anyone wishing to understand and build a career within IT.
As the IT skills gap widens and organisations increasingly outsource IT processes to offshore service providers, the future for the UK's IT industry - and economy - looks bleak.
The reduced number of A-level and GCSE IT qualifications awarded last year raised industry fears that young people will be unable to provide the IT skills needed in the sector. Some 4,065 students were awarded A-levels in computing in 2010, compared with 4,710 the previous year - a drop of 13.7%. The number of students taking a GCSE in ICT dropped 17% from 73,519 in 2009 to 61,022 in 2010.
As 2011's GCSE and A-level students await their exam results this month, the IT industry is prepared for another drop in students studying for IT-related courses, in line with the ongoing trend.
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The IT industry has been vocal about IT education and the declining number of young people taking IT-related A-levels and GCSEs.
The Royal Society has launched an investigation into the way computing is taught in schools, while IT industry trade association Intellect has advised government to scrap ICT lessons.
Karen Price, chief executive at IT sector skills council E-skills, warned that the mismatch between supply and demand threatens to undermine the future productivity and prosperity of the UK. E-Skills predicts that more than half a million new IT and telecoms professionals will be needed in the next five years.
There has been increased interest among CIOs about setting up apprenticeship schemes in their own organisation as companies start to realise the benefits of hiring school leavers and graduates. Large firms such as Capgemini, British Gas, BT, IBM, Microsoft, Visa Europe, Co-operative Group and Sky have all recently launched apprenticeships.
Organisations such as the Open University (OU) are beginning to map alternative career paths. An OU study in February 2011 found that 43% of employers reported a lack of suitable candidates for IT and telecoms roles due to a lack of business knowledge surrounding relationship management, business process analysis and design, and project and programme management.
As a result, the Open University recently introduced a new BSc in computing and IT, aimed at providing students with a combination of technical and business skills. Kevin Streater, executive director for IT and telecoms at the OU, said more than 1,000 students have already signed up for an October start.
He added that the OU is currently conducting weekly apprenticeship briefings as a result of high demand from employers to introduce higher apprenticeship schemes, which include a degree programme.
The information technology revolution is firmly established as part of modern life. Anyone with IT skills is likely to have strong career prospects given that effective use of IT will enable the UK to remain competitive in the global economy.
The IT apprentice
Valentina Zanardi completed a three-year PHD at University College, London, after studying Computer Science at Bologna University. Her thesis was on "recommended systems", which covers the techniques used on e-commerce sites such as Amazon to suggest items for users to buy. Her research involved developing new algorithms to make buying recommendations and she has presented her findings at several global conferences, including the 33rd International Conference on Software Engineering, which took place in Hawaii in May 2011.
While completing her thesis, Zanardi joined CA Technologies' Associate Services Consultant Programme (ASCP), which trains future IT consultants. She said working while completing her PHD was hard and admitted spending "a lot of time in front of a computer or with my nose in a book".
Due to the way the education system in Italy is organised, Zanardi took an interest in IT when she was 17, studying science and maths, as well as literature, history and the classics. At 18, she decided to take IT seriously. "IT is so important today as it fits into all other spheres," she said.
Programming skills change over time, and while Zanardi began programming in Java, she has now been trained to configure CA Technology's Clarity system. "It is more important to [understand] things which you can apply to a different environment," she said.
Her current job involves working alongside customers to help them get the most from the Clarity system.