IT skills shortages persist despite economic slowdown

The latest E-skills UK survey of IT in the UK describes an industry battening down the hatches to survive a long haul, and still...

The latest E-skills UK survey of IT in the UK describes an industry battening down the hatches to survive a long haul, and still riven by stark regional divides. Bill Goodwin reports on the significant findings

It may seem paradoxical, but amid the biggest slowdown in IT recruitment for a decade, companies in some parts of the country are struggling to fill vacancies for skilled IT staff.

Businesses in Wales, the South East and the West Midlands are reporting long lead times when it comes to finding suitably qualified staff. Rather than cutting back on IT staff, the latest analysis of the UK's workforce shows that many companies are planning to expand their IT departments.

The pattern varies from region to region, but on average, one-third of companies say they will need to hire new people, and while 65% plan to keep their workforce the same, only 6% are planning to cut back staff.

Based on 700 interviews with IT employers conducted in February, the review, by the public-private sector training partnership, E-skills UK, provides a fascinating snapshot of the state of the IT profession.

There are about 1,200,000 IT professionals currently employed across the UK: 40% of them work for IT suppliers and service companies, while the rest work in the IT departments of businesses and public sector organisations.

The public sector, one of the few areas of the economy not having to rein-in its IT spending, is still the largest employer of IT staff, accounting for 25% of the total.

IT and telecoms firms employ about 17% of the workforce, with manufacturing industries, sales and leisure and the financial services industries the next most important.

Most IT workers not employed by suppliers, about 340,000, work in business. Another 236,000 work in development; 100,000 in sales and marketing, and 70,000 in strategy and planning roles.

Employment is still concentrated in London and the South East, which together account for 33% of the workforce. The rest is spread evenly around the country, though it tends to be less developed in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Despite a plethora of campaigns to encourage more women into IT, the profession is still 67% male, and for the most part consists of full time, permanent employees. Women do figure more prominently in the regions, with Northern Ireland attracting 45% women workers, and the North East 40%. The North East also had far more than the national average part time and temporary IT workers.

Although the prognosis across the UK is for an expansion in demand for IT staff, the picture varies dramatically from region to region. Demand in the South West, the North East and Scotland will grow at less than the national average, for example, and in London, Northern Ireland and the West Midlands it will fall.

In regions of short supply, vacancies for software and systems development professionals are among the most difficult to fill. Operations managers and business analysts can also be difficult to find in some parts of the country. Most businesses have identified gaps in the skills and knowledge of their existing IT staff that could be filled by better training. More than half of businesses in the South East, Wales and Northern Ireland report skills shortfalls, whereas fewer than 35% have similar concerns in Yorkshire, Humberside and the North East.

Better IT platform skills top the wishlist of most employers, followed by better interpersonal skills and knowledge of IT tools, operating systems and database applications.

IT training shows strong regional variations. Wales, for instance, enjoys the highest proportion of GCSE and A Level computer studies passes, while the South West, Yorkshire & Humberside trail behind the national average.

Further education colleges in the North East produce more students with IT qualifications for the size of the working population than any other region. The East Midlands produces the least.

Coverage by private sector training companies across the UK is, at best, patchy. The highest concentrations are in London and the South East, Bristol, Nottingham and the North West. The South West, Wales, East Anglia, and the North West, on the other hand are poorly served.

Employers, colleges and universities will need to work together to ensure that courses are kept up to date, and reflect the changing needs of employers, said Andrew Harvey-Price, researcher at E-skills UK.

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