Walking backwards into the future

Last week I attended the Westminster E-Forum Keynote Seminar “A UK IT Skills Gap?”. Most of the discussion could have taken place in 1983, before the Butcher reports on IT Skills – but for the fact that our position, relative to the rest of the world, is so much worse and the minister who responded to the discussion did not appear to have been briefed on the scale and nature of the challenge.

I came back from that seminar to a request from one of Computer Weekly’s reporters, Rebecca Thompson, to comment on the European Commission proposals for a “Blue Card” for skilled immigrants based on the US Green Card. I e-mailed back saying that this, alongside current unemployment rates across Europe was “a confession that the EU has failed to develop the skills of its workforce.”

There is a fundamental disconnect between Government policies (including across the EU and in Brussels) and the needs of workers and employers for regular updating, particularly with regard to IT skills. Our economic stagnation and decline, absolute and not just relative, will continue until this is corrected.

The analysis in the Leitch Report is excellent but the PSA Delivery Agreement 2: “Improve the skills of the population on the way to ensuring a world class skills base by 2020” is mainly about adult literacy, masquerading as NVQ levels 1 and 2. There is little about government support (whether direct or via tax incentives or intelligent procurement) for the development and maintenance of higher-level skills, whether technician or graduate.

More-over, in the small print of the Public Spending Review, we find that DIUS and its agencies are about to terminate funding for those taking additional courses at the same level except for those STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).subjects that are considered “strategically important and vulnerable”. At first sight that might look to be a good idea, except that Computing is not counted among these. The effect is therefore to remove support for individuals with equivalent degrees in other subjects who are seeking to convert or update their skills.

I find it difficult to believe that Ministers actually understand what they have supposedly signed off, let alone the implications. I was recently given an analysis of the students on one of the UK’s leading MSc programmes in Computer Security. Less than a quarter of the students were from the UK and barely a third from the EU as a whole.

Yesterday I learned of the plans of the Beijing Cyber re-Creation District, three square miles of disused steelworks close to the Olympic “village” being redeveloped as the hub of a cross between Google, Second Life and Yellow Pages: taking the disparate visions of West Coast thinkers and integrating them into a world of secure, e-commerce and supply chain integration.

The concept is as breathtaking as was the Japanese 5th Generation Computing concept, 25 years ago. The difference is that it is due to go live next year. And they are not looking for research partners. They are looking for commercial and business partners to help them get critical mass for global inter-operability standards (from secure identity, authorisation and authentication through multi-currency/lingual/jurisdiction transactions to the handling of taxation and regulatory intemediation).

Over the last century Hong Kong grew rich as the entrepot for the West to a fractious, corrupt and bureaucratic continent which finally tore itself apart in civil war. Europe has, hopefully, had its civil wars, but is the future of Britain as the entrepot for the East to an increasingly arthritic and bureaucratic continent?

If so, we need to move fast and get our act together on developing the skills of the natives unless, like Hong Kong, we are to draw in expertise from around the world while the unskilled locals (including our children as well as our current employees) act as bodyguards and servants.