Bottom of the class

Most people quit the education system utterly lacking in the IT skills so badly needed by business. Kris Sangani investigates...

Most people quit the education system utterly lacking in the IT skills so badly needed by business. Kris Sangani investigates what can be done

In a buoyant world economy, just about everybody is screaming out for staff, whatever department they work in. But as more organisations become ever more networked, the IT department's desperation to get hold of new talent to fulfil its mission-critical role is turning to despair.

For most UK businesses, the adoption of IT begins with the acquisition of the necessary hardware and software and perhaps some custom development of applications. However, the most important pieces in the IT jigsaw are the skills necessary to design, implement and manage the IT department. Without a strategy for resolving the IT skills shortage, UK plc will find itself at a competitive disadvantage compared with its main rivals, which are currently addressing their own IT skills shortages.

Communications, Internet technologies and e-commerce underpin a growing business dependency on IT. As a result, the demand for skilled IT professionals will persist in rising at a rate that will outstrip the ability of the UK economy to train staff to fill those positions.

The widening gap between the supply and demand of skilled workers has already contributed heavily to salary inflation and staff churn, raising costs and lowering profits for businesses. Some estimates put the cost of IT skills within the enterprise as high as 60% of the IT department's budget - this includes the salaries of employees in the IT department and the cost of services provided by outsourcers.

IT departments require staff trained for the systems they operate and capable of analysing and solving complex business problems using the resources to hand. The range of skills and abilities required is immense. As well as people able to formulate IT strategies and manage projects, businesses need staff with the technical nous to operate networks and computer systems.

Yet the IT skills shortage is nothing new. For decades, industry pundits have predicted shortages, while successive Governments have ignored the issue of how to train enough IT professionals.

Many businesses point the finger squarely at schools, colleges and universities for this state of affairs. If the education system gave a higher priority to IT training, they say, then each new cohort entering the workforce would be equipped with the IT skills that companies so desperately need.

But do businesses expect too much from the education system? According to David Rippon, chairman of the IT Directors Forum at the British Computer Society and IT director of Land Securities, they do. "There's a degree of over-reaction to some of the issues," he says. "IT departments are notorious for not ploughing enough into education themselves and this is where the industry should start. In this sense, IT directors expect more than they really should."

Rippon believes training should be focused on making people think. "At the higher education level, it's not about vocational skills," he points out. "Although there's no doubt that grounding in basic IT is useful, it isn't necessary. I look around at my own department and most of our graduates have a non-IT background."

Rippon argues that the IT industry moves so rapidly that any effort that goes into training the nuts and bolts of programming in a university environment is doomed to failure because by the time students graduate, the industry has moved on. Instead, he believes that employers should make sure their staff continue to acquire vocational skills throughout their career.

"When you're running an IT department, you're taking various decisions about what sort of infrastructure to install. Once you've made the decision, you must train your staff in the type of system you install. You can't expect the university education system to deliver that type of education - it should be organised through the supplier."

In fact, Rippon believes businesses will have to find their own solutions to IT skills shortages. "Companies have to persuade people to stay," he says. "To an extent, some employers expect the state to pay for this as they don't want to pay for the training themselves." Peter Hulleman, senior analyst at IDC, agrees, although he believes IT departments will suffer badly and many companies will be compelled to change their business processes. "In the case of continual shortages, companies will take more drastic actions, such as outsourcing - which is a transfer of the problem of lack of skills to a service provider," he says, adding that this will drive the take-up of application service provider (ASP) products. "We're already seeing this in the Netherlands and Scandinavia."

For that reason, the IT sector has got to take control of its own future. It can't just hope that third parties will think its problem through for it. IT directors need the state education system to train people to think, not learn about software products and protocols that will have been superseded by the time they graduate. IT graduates, without a shadow of a doubt, are a minority of recruits into the IT business - but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

It's also important to remember that salary isn't the sole factor that motivates people. Whatever the size of their pay packet, staff who aren't valued, trusted, sent on training courses in sexy new technologies or given important things to do are far more likely to hand in their notice than employees who are.

Keeping hold of staff is always a better option than finding new people. From this point of view, IT departments need to do a great deal more to reduce the churn of staff.

Although the Government is trying to make the UK more attractive to foreign skills, the issue of immigration has been moving up the political agenda, which could put an end to skill imports. And even if the Government is successful in its foreign recruitment drive, IT-skilled immigration is no better than a short-term fix. The best long-term solution is to build a pervasive IT education culture throughout business, schools and universities.

The recent reskilling package announced by EXi Telecoms to retrain thousands of laid-off steel workers in rolling out third-generation mobile phone networks in the UK shows what can be done. The chance for a fresh start will be available to up to 3,000 steel workers in plants across Wales and a further 1,000 in the north of England. It could be the way forward.

Vying Vendor Varsites

The IT industry is also working to deliver supplier-based courses through the university system. For example, IT staff can now join the Cisco Networking Academy (CNA) programme at a university or a college, which is cheaper than going to a recognised training company, although certification takes longer.

However, networking rival 3Com is sceptical of the scheme's ability to increase the IT skills base. "All Cisco does is train Cisco people," says Mark Davenport, 3Com's education development manager. "That isn't going to solve the skills shortage."

Davenport believes the best way to build a bigger IT workforce is through supplier-neutral training programmes. 3Com has launched what it claims is an independent, standards-based course covering the design, implementation, management and integration of computer networks. It is currently being assessed for GNVQ accreditation by E-skills NTO.

Education, education, education: Government sponsorship of IT training

The state took little interest in IT training until it became clear just how mission-critical IT had become to the UK's economy. The year 2000 date change problem highlighted the issue more than any other.

In early 1998, the recently elected Labour Government embarked on one of the most ambitious IT training initiatives ever seen in the UK, with each Y2K trainee getting a grant of £1,300. Tony Blair's Millennium Bug-busting army was intended to number more than 20,000, but the response from business was dismissive. By September 1998, only 24 trainees had been signed up to the scheme. It wasn't until the course was made free that small businesses took up the offer to train staff to solve the Y2K problem.

However, it soon became obvious that the need for Y2K-trained staff was far greater than the Government had envisaged and shortages couldn't be solved simply by setting targets and quotas. As a result, the Government now puts its efforts into trying to attract IT professionals from abroad. Patricia Hewitt, e-minister at the Department of Trade & Industry has already made trips to India and the Far East to encourage IT talent to come to the UK. The Government is attempting to speed up the issue of visas to skilled immigrants. Peter Hulleman, senior analyst at IDC, applauds the Government's strategy. "Although training and education can increase the supply of skilled labour in the longer term, the only answer to the short-term challenge is skilled foreign labour," he says.

Last July, the Government set up E-skills NTO (National Training Organisation) to address everything from basic end-user skills to leading-edge Web developments. In collaboration with Cisco, Microsoft and Novell, E-skills has worked to develop a way of linking GNVQs with the most sought after supplier qualifications.

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