Is working in UK IT all stick and no carrot, or is it a myth purveyed by the unskilled?

I have been blogging the last few days about a survey created by a reader.

Matt, as he is known, created a survey to get to the bottom of the debate in the UK of whether there is an IT skills gap in the UK or not. If you are an IT professional please fill it in.

Yesterday, after the survey reached 41 respondents, I gave an indication of some of the findings of the survey and also published some of the comments.

There have now been 123 respondents so I am updating the stats and providing the next load of comments, which I have put in this post and recommend you read.

Thanks to all that have taken time to support the survey and thanks again Matt for you great work.

Yesterday I said over a quarter of the 41 respondents said they did not think they will be working in IT in five years. Now just below a quarter of 123 feel that way. There will be many other stats when I go through the results.

I think the comments that we are getting tell interesting stories. And it is not all one-sided. Please take time to read the comments below and again if you have time fill in the survey yourself here. If you just want to comment you can comment directly to this blog post.

I will blog about some of the contacts individually but in the meantime here is a selection of some of the comments.

1 – “It feels (and I realise how unscientific this is) that employers are starting to treat people in IT as inter-replaceable, hence the offshoring. There isn’t the realisation that people bring individual skills alongside their IT knowledge; whether that happens to be IT skills that aren’t within the employee’s own domain (for example, developers with infrastructure knowledge), or even non-IT (project management, business analysis).

Employers offshoring their ‘IT functions’ need to realise that in saving money, they are excluding people who can bring more than just the easily replaceable skills into their business. And, at the same time, maybe the employees need to shout this a bit louder.

Quick note on the survey, a few of the boxes are 0 to 10. I’d consider having 0 and 1-10 separately: you have no way of differentiating between companies who haven’t taken on people to those who have taken some on, which might yield more interesting numbers.”

2 – “There’s just no work out there for a middle-aged woman with a specialism in architecture & design but no qualifications.”

3 – “Although acknowledged as being very good technically, and understanding the IT business, I will be over 50 in five years time and feel unlikely to find many opportunities in this price-constrained industry.

What skills shortage? It is all an excuse for the corporates to bring in cheap staff from overseas, or to export our jobs to cheaper locations.

Also, experience costs money. Employers don’t want to pay for it, so go for cheaper, less-experienced staff (UK or not). Then they repeat the age-old IT problems brought about through inexperience. Not cost-effective.”

4 – “I’m in the second tier of IT support for my company so I deal with a large number of support cases. By necessity I’ve also expanded into IP Telephony support and fixing major script problems with installation packages and OS images on our Deployment Servers, and had to fight very hard to get any extra financial compensation for these efforts.

From personal experience I can tell you about a major problem in the IT industry that is endemic and no one seems to want to address: the crafty interpretation of employment laws.

The users onsite are often surprised to learn that I’m a contractor, in spite of the fact that I’ve been here for nearly three years and my job is seemingly a permanent one. Whilst the use of contractors for large parts of the IT industry does make sense (the ability to increase your team size for a short term project for instance) the use of contractors for support services is really an abuse of the spirit in which exemptions to employment laws were made for the IT industry. Essentially by nature, I have to be an autodidact for everything I do because the company will not provide any paid training for me or anything else in terms of benefits which includes sick leave and holiday, Essentially, if I want to take a holiday I have to make sure that I can a) afford to do so (like everyone else) b) make sure that I can afford to miss however many days of work I’ll be taking off. If I’m ill then there is an extra worry that missing a day’s work means missing a day’s pay.

Since I am not a permanent employee, there is also no expectation of career advancement within a company, which is where the problem expands beyond people of my level to the IT industry as a whole. Having seen my pay stagnate in real terms, and with no clear path of progression, I’ve become very aware that support services is very much a dead end career path as any extra training that I shell out for will not pay for itself for several years. As such, I’ve come to the conclusion that my future lies in another part of the industry altogether and have trained myself using the wealth of open source materials available on the internet. I doubt that I have been alone in making a decision like this and, having seen my team expand to include people with poorer customer service skills and either an unwillingness or an inability to learn to be better at their jobs, I can’t help but conclude that they will be the future of support services, which will be a great shame for everyone. In this, the entire industry has to take the blame for its own sacrifice or long term sustainability for the short term gain inherent in the employment models they choose.”

5 – “I have moved from a secondary school where I supported all their needs and also supported primary schools, the IT staff in all of these areas where/are very overworked, literally not enough hours in the day to get the work done and they are massively underpaid for what they do. I have moved from their to a Higher Education Institution based in the Hardware team and found the pay to be much higher and with a much reduced workload, I have then moved into the software/systems team and again found the pay very good and the workload very comfortable. The biggest issue is the limited funding and budget restraints (and some red tape) which stop the company providing the best service it can.

Basically I don’t think there is a skills shortage as such but the jobs are not specific enough for the needs of the business, I have found I have now branched out and support a lot more systems than I can maintain well and properly.”

6 – “It’s not a skills shortage, it’s that many managers do not understand IT, and so cannot or will not implement IT solutions based on the technical recommendation of their own technical specialists.

Instead they place their faith in consultants and salesmen who speak the language of management.

A particularly famous example is the Prime Minister inviting the CEO of a foreign company over to discuss how the UK government should spend its IT and training budgets. “Buy our software, install our software in schools, and train school children to use our software. We can do you a discount.” was pretty much the sum of the advice.”

7 – “I work for an outsourcer with capability in India and the UK (and most other geographies). We find it difficult to recruit the people we need everywhere, not just in the UK. The universities in the UK and India are not turning out people with the rights skills, behaviour or attitude for modern, agile software development. The market which appears to produce the best people appears to be Scandinavia, but they are prohibitively expensive to use anywhere outside their native land.”

8 – “As a Java/J2EE contractor (Senior Dev/Tech Lead level) in London I can only speak for myself but the IT industry appears very buoyant! Where I do see jobs going is mostly in the easily commoditised area like HelpDesk and Desktop Support. I have seen dev jobs go but there seems to be a natural pendulum of back of forth as work gets outsourced and then brought in again as they realise that it is not a silver bullet.

I have interviewed about 20 people in the last 15 months on behalf of my current client and the candidate do seem to be grouped into two categories (and this is after having run the gauntlet of recruitment and HR); the first group have a passion for technology and seem genuinely interested in IT while the second regard it as something that pays the bills. The first group read/write blogs, try out new languages and technologies, commit code to open source and so on. The second passively wait to be spoon-fed by their employers and then complain about not getting any training. Or if they do go off and do some training, they regard their work as done rather than the fact that they have got a new bike and have got passed the point where they need training wheels. Passion about IT is one of the most important factors and yet it is not that common.

There are issues in the industry around IT graduates and basic numeracy and literacy but if companies are finding it hard to get the right people, they are doing it wrong.”

9 – “The Quango where I currently work is one of those to be abolished over the next 12 months. I’ll take the redundancy and the opportunity to get into another profession. I’ve been a Unix/Linux admin since around 1996 and am ready to hop to something else. There are too many under trained/skilled fools around and I’m fed up with managers that believe every damn buzzword that they hear and immediately buy into it, whilst having no IT knowledge except what they learn from salesmen that are rubbing their hands together to get a huge payout of your tax £££. From what I’ve seen over the last 5-6 years, It’s all salesmen and non technical people running the show now.”

10 – “As someone who spent 37 years gaining as broad a range of skills as possible – my last project involved data cubes linked to spreadsheets/datawarehouses – and who then found when dumped into the job market that those skills and experience effectively rendered me unemployable let me bring a different perspective on this.
IT as a profession lost its way when it concentrated inwards on the hardware – software systems and left the business – IT interfaces to the other business professions.  This happened about the time that Unix/C became techie system of choice and accountants were getting used to spreadsheets.  Often the young guy in accounts who liked computers became the IT manager, and being young and inexperienced, could not command a place on the top management committees.

IT then started its migration from being the centre of innovation that transformed businesses to being part of infrastructure services, and any new thinking outsourced to global consultants.  IT now looks inward, plays safe, and is obsessed by recruits having complete knowledge of a particular version of some software package and bits of paper from training providers.  Skills shortages exist only because IT and HR define jobs stupidly tightly, forgetting that the key IT skill is the ability to learn and use new skills quickly.”

11 –  “It’s impossible to predict the future, but I would not like to think Ill be doing the exact same job I’m doing now in 5 years (Network security & ICT support), I’ll do my best to keep my skills up to date. But times do change and different jobs are created the entire job, while old ones die out.

I do think that outsourcing to India will kill the UK. It’s not just ICT but other professions. I think cloud computing will be big, not industry changing as people come to realize its just a buzz word, and no long term cost savings. ICT will mostly stay in house (where it should and will always be) Although support for some 3rd party apps may well come from “Dave” in India.”

12 – “I am a hiring manager for a successful and growing IT services company. Of the candidates we invite for interview about 1 in 6 make it through the first interview and about 1 in 4 of them make it through the second interview and receive offers.

The most common reason for a no-hire at second interview is when we sit a candidate down in front of a computer and ask them to solve a simple (really, <em>very</em> simple) problem in the language of their choice. Many “experienced” “professional” “programmers” simply cannot do this in a convincing way.

Most of our hires are non-UK but EU citizens. We find that they tend to have a better theoretical grounding in computer science, tend to have learned more from their industrial experience and tend to be better motivated than UK citizens.”

13 – “IT is increasingly considered an unskilled job. Hence there is a shortage of “low pay, good-enough staff”, hence the desire to offshore or onshore.

Having specific business/ domain knowledge, or just being “down the road”, can help mitigate this, but I would not recommend I.T as a vocation.”

14 – “Over 50 and few contracts around at the moment for senior staff. Recruitment agencies. are the worst and don’t help the industry, don’t even have the courtesy to acknowledge job applications.”

15 – “Impossible to meet deadlines generated by project managers who have non-vocational degrees and high levels of incompetence and don’t understand the problems to judge typical timescales. Glass ceiling for technical hands-on IT staff. In the carrot and stick analogy, working in IT is all stick and no carrot.”

16 – “The Skills shortage is a myth, used to justify bringing in labour from outside the EU. Many workers are transferred in temporarily; their remuneration is topped up by Tax and NI free expenses, reducing the overall cost to the employer. The employer can also send them back quickly once a project completes, gaining additional flexibility.

But before the Visa scams began, employers simply used static pay as a disincentive or directly made older UK workers redundant, to make way for younger and cheaper replacements. Now the number of new UK entrants to the industry is rock bottom.

I work in Software development, it’s is highly skilled. However, as more managerial people have become IT literate (they can browse the web and use Word), they kid themselves that it’s a low skilled job. The truth is yes anyone can write a program, but they can’t write reliable maintainable code that you’d want to run your business on. It’s like saying anyone can assemble a boat, but would you want to go to sea in it?

The large IT companies lobbied for IR35, because they wanted a difficult tax environment to exist when they made wholesale redundancies. It worked 1000s of people didn’t go contracting when let go, instead they left the industry. Cynical? No the Visa guys started coming in, just after IR35 came into force. If you want proof, look at the professions recorded by newly unemployed claimants signing on in the past ten years. Hear in the Thames Valley at one time, 25% of new signees were UK IT workers laid off, to make way for Visa workers. “

17 – “Worked for major IT company for 20 years, for the last 5 there has been an acceleration in moving jobs overseas (to wherever is cheapest). “Mature” staff like me were offered early retirement or loss of nearly half our pensions. 99% of jobs I could find internally (over a year long period of looking) were in China/India/Singapore.

Effectively we had a highly skilled UK workforce that is quickly being replaced with cheaper trainees (in this country) who are “let go” after they develop any costly skills while the far east takes on the jobs that would otherwise pay well.

If I am still working in IT in a few years it will be as a self employed consultant / contractor. There should be no shortage of this sort of job as the third world people (while some are very skilled) are so overworked they quickly move on and use unskilled labour.”

18 – “Moved to management already within an ad agency, so out of IT technically.”