A lack of skills is all that will hold us back

Advances in software, data storage and microelectronics will be held back not by the limits of physics, materials or ingenuity...

Advances in software, data storage and microelectronics will be held back not by the limits of physics, materials or ingenuity but by a lack of skilled people, writes John Kavanagh.

So said IBM's senior vice-president of technology Nick Donofrio, in the third annual Turing Lecture, organised by the BCS and the Institution of Electrical Engineers in memory of computing pioneer Alan Turing.

Big Blue's chief technologist said the next 30 years would see at least as many advances in technology as in the 33 years since he joined the company.

"Only one thing's going to stop us: ourselves. I deeply worry about the lack of engineers and scientists in our industry. IT already has over a million person shortage. In five or six years' time there could be five to six million jobs unfilled," he said.

According to Donofrio, the big problem - and the solution - lies with young people and their view of IT work. "We are not getting our young interested in careers in the industry. We are urging them to do other things, chastising them, ridiculing them, or allowing others to: why would you want to participate in an environment where the nicest thing you can say about someone is that they are a nerd? It's not fashionable, not chic."

"It is going to stay this way until people like you and I do something to overcome it, until we care enough to get involved with young people at the time they're making decisions - and that's at nine, 10 or 11 years old. By secondary school or college it is too late. You have got to get to them when they're making the decisions to switch out of maths and science.

"You have got to get involved, to give these people a better understanding of the options to make a more informed choice and help them shape their careers. Sometimes you'll touch their hearts and their heads."

Donofrio spoke from personal experience here - and highlighted one of the most satisfying moments of his career, which had nothing to do with any of IBM's award-winning technology discoveries.

"I spend a lot of time in schools, especially around the US National Engineers Week. The best feedback I ever got was from two girls, aged nine or 10. They called to thank me and said I had forever changed their lives. I'd showed them how they could change the world, and generate wealth - and by the way they could make good money doing it."

"We need to do this, or none of the progress will come true," Donofrio said. "You just never know, when you spend that time. Somewhere in that crowd are the people we need to bring in, the future Nobel laureates, the incredible science, maths and engineering achievers, the people who will apply the tools and develop the systems and services."

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment