Don't let training and skills be the forgotten investment in the digital revolution

One of the criticism made of the late prime minister Margaret Thatcher during the recent coverage of her life and death was the way she abandoned communities that had once relied on former businesses such as mining and manufacturing.

There’s a case to be made that she was right to withdraw state support for loss-making companies, but the failure of that policy was the lack of investment in re-training affected workers who were left on the dole with skills that were no longer needed.

Sadly, this has become something of a recurring theme in businesses themselves in the last 20 years years, and particularly for IT professionals – and it’s likely to come to a head in the next few years.

During any economic downturn, one of the first items to be struck from the corporate cost base is training. In too many IT departments that has gone a stage further – employers unwilling to constantly update IT skills to keep up with the pace of technology change have instead sourced newer skills externally, often overseas.

This has all contributed to the continuing skills shortage today. It’s not a shortage of jobs – there are plenty of IT jobs out there – but CIOs say their biggest recruitment challenge is finding people with the relevant skills they need.

Thousands of IT professionals lost their jobs at the height of the crash, only to find that the skills they had honed on legacy IT in their former employers were no longer wanted elsewhere.

There’s a huge rush to recruit in-house software developers at the moment, from large firms to tech start-ups. One entrepreneur has called for the relaxation of UK immigration laws to attract more highly-skilled foreign developers. Many existing, out of work UK IT workers would take offence at such a move.

As Computer Weekly documents every day, we are in the midst of great change brought about by technology – some would call it the digital revolution. That means a growing need for modern IT skills, in areas such as cloud, web development, mobile, social media and more. The skills that have traditionally been the mainstay of the IT department – systems admin, operations, product-focused technical support – many of these will wither as the legacy technologies they support wither.

And if all this follows the same predictable path, with the same attitudes to training and skills that have hampered UK IT in the past 20 years, we have a very big problem.

It is essential that IT leaders do not allow training and skills development to become the forgotten investment in the digital revolution.