An action plan for skills

As the Government struggles with IT skills initiatives, it's time to turn ideas into action

As the Government struggles with IT skills initiatives, it's time to turn ideas into action

Britain has an IT skills gap that, if not urgently addressed, will derail the Government's vision of a high-tech, high-skills economy.

Since the publication of Alan Stevens' report, Skills for the Information Age, numerous initiatives and task forces have been thrown at the problem. But it is time to move from analysis to action. Here we outline Computer Weekly's five-point action plan.

1. It is an e-skills crisis
Analyst predictions for Europe's IT skills gap do not make pleasant reading. By the middle of this decade the EU could be facing a shortfall of 800,000 IT workers. But the bare figures tell less than half the story.

We are at the end of a technology cycle dominated by the client-server model and at the start of one dominated by the Internet. So it is not just a question of boosting the supply of raw recruits. We need government-industry collaboration to train them in the right disciplines, and to retrain those with client-server or mainframe skills.

At present there are too many unco-ordinated initiatives, national training organisations are underfunded and the shared responsibility between industry and education ministers is getting in the way.

What we think
The Government should bring together all the ICT skills initiatives under one minister, with one over-arching quango. There are plenty of good ideas out there - we need focus, speed and accountability.

2. Training investment
UK firms invest too little in IT training. The after-tax return on outlay is poor and headhunting means you can end up training somebody else's workforce.

There is little chance of a compulsory training levy. Employers are against it, and the Government's Skills Task Force rejected it. Despite that, education secretary David Blunkett has offered to use existing powers to back any voluntary arrangement, and has cited the voluntary 0.05% levy on turnover in the broadcasting industry as a possible model.

What we think
We need big tax breaks for employers and individuals who invest in training. The Government should introduce an interest-free loan scheme for individuals who want to pay for their own training. The E-Skills NTO should lead the fight for a voluntary levy to fund ICT skills training across industry.

3. The image problem
The Stevens Report called for a "high-profile, nationwide campaign" to improve the image of ICT jobs. But it has not happened. The "image" question can seem intangible and insoluble, but it is vitally important.

The Government's efforts at boosting techno-literacy in schools will begin to pay off in the latter part of this decade. But the best graduates may still choose to be lawyers, doctors or accountants unless the IT profession becomes more attractive.

What we think
We need a sustained, government-backed campaign to boost the image of IT. Education institutions must improve the low status of IT; businesses must raise its status within the firm. An IT director on the board is not just vital for business strategy - it is a signal that the profession can be a route to the highest level of business leadership.

4. Bring more women into IT
The image problem is a factor in the woefully low number of women graduates who join the IT profession - but that is only half the story. Many organisations in practice exempt their IT departments from family-friendly policies and "work-life balance" principles.

What we think
Employers should bring IT employment practices, hours and culture into line with best practice. Sexism and discrimination against women should be stamped out at departmental level. Both employers and government should experiment with radical solutions - for example, the women-only postgraduate IT courses run in Australia cited by the Stevens report.

5. End the training chaos
When we asked IT directors what was top of their wish list to close the skills gap, many named better co-ordination between educators, trainers and employers.

What we think
The 800 IT qualifications should be slimmed down to a core set - with supplier exams centrally accredited. IT training firms must be forced to comply with national standards through central accreditation.

Government and industry must together spell out a clear picture of the skills needed. Education institutions and software giants must ensure that portable, generic skills are included in all proprietory qualifications.

All this represents only the big picture. There are firms, universities and a plethora of quangoes hard at work on the detail - but the missing link is a national strategy, with a single point of leadership.

IT skills and productivity will be central issues for the next decade. We have had four years of good ideas on skills from Labour. Whoever governs next must prioritise turning ideas into action.

what do you think?

Have we got it right or wrong? Send your views to [email protected] - subject line: "Skills Strategy". We will publish a special page of reader responses on 5 April.

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