What can Poland's STEM culture teach the UK?

Eastern and central Europe are hotspots for IT services. There is a long legacy of IT skill in countries in the region with a lot of this related to the former Soviet Union, where these technology skills were highly valued.

Whether you go to Moldova, Ukraine or Poland you will find large amounts of IT professionals, compared to the UK where there is a shortage. Proponents of the IT skills shortage theory are often accused of extending this belief to help them justify recruiting lower cot labour from overseas, most often India.

Whether you believe there is a shortage or not, one thing is for certain and that is that UK students are not that keen to do IT courses. In parts of Eastern Europe it is about the most popular career path.

In this guest blog Marcin Malinowski – director of International Services at IT consultancy Outbox Group, talks about what the UK can learn from Poland.

What the UK could learn from Poland in IT skills development?

By Marcin Malinowski

“Though it has been a problem for some time, the UK government is only now focusing its attention on the national STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths) skills shortage – a huge factor limiting long-term economic growth. According to a study conducted by O2 last year, the UK will require over 750,000 skilled digital workers by 2017, that’s the entire population of Leeds. If the UK can’t provide that amount of technical IT professionals it could potentially cost the country billions.

The IT sector, previously devastated by the ‘dot bomb’ collapse in the early noughties has recently bounced back in a big way – seeing fast growth and high investment. Last year 22 UK technology companies, the largest number since 2006, raised $795m in equity funding on the London Stock Exchange. But in order to sustain this rapid growth, the UK needs to place a greater emphasis on STEM skill development so critical to the IT sector. This is something other EU countries, such as Ireland, Finland and Poland, have been focused on for a while.

Poland distinguishes itself in the sheer number of IT graduates, whose numbers amount to 40,000 a year, who go on to secure critical roles in the largest IT companies from Singapore to Silicon Valley. Poland based suppliers receive a lot of contracts from UK businesses, and seek to work on these projects closely with them to train and develop their UK staff with expert knowledge. This means our customers are able to continue to benefit from the project long after it has finished.

UK benefits greatly from skilled overseas talent, but there are more things to look for from outsourcers and system integrators than just getting the job done.

Today many UK businesses are experiencing growth and emerging from a recession, so many aspects of outsourcing take precedence over training. Often the price and time to deliver a project are seen as more important than if an outsourcer has the capability to re-skill UK staff, and provide lasting value to the business. This is understandable, but may be bad for business when the economy picks up and rivals are in better shape to take advantage of the eventual upturn. It is often more beneficial to pair with an outsourcer that has a similar culture, operates on a similar time zone, and can effectively communicate and work with UK teams on a project.

These days skills transfer need not be formal classroom training, and does not have to involve lengthy courses during core work hours. A great method of skills transfer for many digital professionals is simply ‘Learn by Doing’, ideally in partnership with the team leading the project almost simultaneously. UK businesses should not expect this level of service from every outsourcer, but should keep this in mind when choosing which provider to partner with in order to tackle the ever-growing skills shortage.

There is a big focus at the moment in Poland on improving the skills of our students by structuring education in a way that provides them with the specific know-how that employers look for in digital workers. Simply adding real-life context to the lessons learnt in the classroom will drastically improve students employability. Another aspect of key importance is encouraging businesses to take on digital apprentices – an apprenticeship in the UK has always been associated with roles in skilled trade and manufacturing. Opportunities for digital hopefuls to find relevant work experience is important, so they already have the tools they need to enter the IT sector with confidence and value.

The core problem is the UK is currently not producing the right skills domestically, and these skills are going to be vital to ensure economic growth continues. It is therefore up to UK government, centres of education and businesses alike to instigate and encourage the change that will ensure a thriving and sustainable IT sector. The UK as a whole is facing a critical lack of skills in IT just as the economy need them most. In order to tackle this, it needs to boost its skills base quickly before it loses out.”