Politicians are facing growing pressure from both employers and IT professionals to make skills and training a key issue for the general election.
With Labour widely expected to go to the polls in May, lobby groups and the IT industry's professional bodies are beginning to bend the ears of MPs, civil servants and ministers.
For once, IT's recruitment problems may not be completely buried beneath the inevitable arguments about the European Union, the health service, taxation and spending.
The Government's focus on e-commerce, the arrival of the E-envoy and Tony Blair's plans to have government departments offering services online by 2005, have placed the UK's shortage of e-skills high on the political agenda.
IR35 is a catalyst
IR35 could also be an election issue. The Government's controversial tax ruling on self-employed IT contractors has angered both freelancers and employers. They fear it will only worsen a growing e-commerce labour shortage.
The ruling could cost the Labour party a significant number of votes, claims the Professional Contractors Group, which represents 11,000 freelancers.
"The majority of our members voted for New Labour last time. That's certainly not the case this time. We will make sure that IR35 is on the agenda at local and national level. A lot of candidates knocking on the doors will find it is an issue," the group said.
Against this background, employers and suppliers are beginning to realise that they at least have a chance of raising the current skills shortages as a serious election issue. The Institute for the Management of Information Systems (IMIS), was one of the first off the mark last month, when it used a meeting of the influential Parliamentary IT Committee to launch an action plan for government and employers.
The plan, part of the organisation's IT skills trend report for 2001, lays down milestones that together could significantly ease the recruitment difficulties faced by IT directors.
The problems are so acute, said the report author Philip Virgo, that some companies are beginning to leave the UK in search of IT talent.
"We are now beginning to see a number of software and services companies leaving the UK because of skills shortages. It is the haemorrhaging of employment that goes with those leading-edge skills that makes it an election issue," Virgo claimed.
IDC estimates that the UK will be short of 300,000 IT workers by 2003.
Tax incentives are urgently needed to encourage employers to invest money in training their staff in the IT skills that are in short supply, IMIS argues in its report.
The call is echoed by the Computing Services & Software Association (CSSA), which is drafting its own IT manifesto for the election.
"Tax breaks could change the culture, so that people realise they should be training each year as an integral part of their working life," said Tim Conway, the CSSA's policy director.
Without some radical changes, skills shortages will continue to plague the IT profession, IMIS argues. Each new wave of technology brings a dearth of people with the skills to implement it and a glut of people with skills that are no longer needed. Ten years ago, mainframe skills were on their way out while client/server professionals were in short supply. This time, it is client/ server skills that are in decline, and e-commerce skills that are in short supply.
There has been a huge increase in recruitment effort for IT, systems, services, programming and communications managers. Meanwhile, Java and HTML have taken over from client/server as the most sought-after skills and salaries have risen dramatically. Senior Web designers can expect to earn more now than systems analysts.
Although universities are expanding the number of IT courses on offer, they are still struggling to supply employers with enough IT graduates.
The problem is not a lack of courses or students - but a shortage of teaching staff, said Professor Gillian Lovegrove, president of the Conference of Professors and Heads of Computing. IT lecturers are regularly lured away by the promise of earning three or four times their current salary in the private sector, she told the Parliamentary IT Committee earlier this month.
"We have not got enough lecturers to teach the students. We can't recruit enough of them. And we can't hold on to the ones we have got," Lovegrove said.
Employers and universities will have to work much closer together if the problems are to be solved. Lovegrove sees a future where universities will increasingly help employers to keep the skills of their IT staff up to date throughout their careers. Employers and staff will benefit and universities will earn the money to pay their IT lecturers competitive salaries.
All of this will require a sea-change in the way employers view skills, the IMIS report suggests. Employers will need to begin thinking of training as an investment rather than a cost. They will need to spend money re-skilling their existing workforce, offering training to the unemployed and other excluded groups, and consider offering jobs to workers over the age of 50. They will also need to offer youngsters high-quality apprenticeship programmes.
Women in IT
More needs to be done to attract women into the IT profession. After a promising start, the number of women IT professionals is now beginning to decline. Britain is lagging severely behind the rest of the world.
Peter Skyte, head of the MSF Technology Professionals Association said it is nothing short of a disgrace. "Only 12% of the IT profession are women, compared to 22% in the rest of Europe and 44% in Singapore," said Skyte.
E-commerce minister Patricia Hewitt is aware of the problems. "I am determined that we continue to tackle the cultural barriers that discourage girls and women from seeing IT as a good career," Hewitt said, responding to IMIS's findings.
All of these issues and more were raised a year ago in the Government-backed Alan Stevens report. Work is continuing, but 12 months on the report is widely regarded as a missed opportunity. Lack of early political support has delayed its objectives. It will take more than fine words this time, if the IT profession is to find a lasting solution to its problems.
The IMIS spells out three action plans
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