New e-skills supremo to give firms a voice in Westminster

As chief executive of the newly-formed E-skills National Training Organisation, Karen Price will have a key role in fighting the...

As chief executive of the newly-formed E-skills National Training Organisation, Karen Price will have a key role in fighting the IT skills shortage. She explains to Bill Goodwin her plans on how she will work with Government, universities, IT users and IT suppliers

Karen Price's ambition is to talk herself out of a job. "In five years time, I would like to have solved the skills crisis," she said, in her first interview since taking over as chief executive of the E-skills National Training Organisation (NTO), And, yes, she insisted, "I am serious."

Most Computer Weekly readers have probably not even heard of the E-skills NTO. Yet this tiny organisation has been charged with solving one of the most serious problems facing businesses in the UK - the acute shortage of professionals with up-to-date IT skills.

The task is central to the Government's dreams of the UK becoming a world leader in e-commerce. Unless the problems are solved, the UK's economic growth could be seriously damaged. IDC Research suggests that the UK will have a shortfall of 300,000 IT professionals by 2003.

E-skills NTO is one of the Government's flagship public/private sector training partnerships. It was formed last year by merging two smaller training bodies, the E-business NTO and the IT NTO. Price, who ran the E-business NTO, has spent much of the past 12 months welding the two bodies together.

The new organisation aims to be employer-driven. IT directors from both user and supplier companies will have a heavy influence on the E-skills NTO's policies and priorities. The organisation will feed their views back to the Government and act as "a voice for employers" said Price.

Convincing IT users to take an interest in training policy will not be easy. In the past, users have tended to leave the task to IT suppliers, such as Microsoft and EDS.

Yet the involvement of users in the E-skills NTO is vital if the Government is to hear a balanced view from the IT profession.

Price admits that, until now, NTOs have not done enough to attract users. "I am starting to meet with IT directors and chief information officers. There is interest but a lack of awareness," she said.

Challenging the short-term attitudes of employers and the Government to training is a key part of her mission. All the research shows that employers are struggling to find skilled people. Yet very few are prepared to invest in training graduates, hiring older workers, or making it easier for women to enter into the profession.

"There is a terrifying amount of short-termism, both from users and from the Government. It is difficult to expect individual employers to look beyond next week, but I do think we have to work together to look at least to the medium-term strategy for skills issues," said Price.

The Government-backed Alan Stevens report, published last year, was meant to change all of that. Its 16 key action points for government and industry should have been completed by the end of the year.

"It has been a missed opportunity," said Price. "I think when it was initially published there was great interest in it. We should have hit the ground running last November. We had interest. We had the employee engagement. Now we need to go back and re-invigorate everybody's interest and engagement."

Price's first priority is to issue what she described as a call to action for employers, government and universities. She wants them to begin working together on the skills problem and has identified three key objectives:

  • A detailed programme of research into the skills shortage

  • Encourage more people to take up careers in IT

  • Start dialogue between employers, universities, training companies and colleges

    Making a measurable impact will need a great deal of money. Yet the indications are that the Government is looking to save money by creating a single NTO for IT, rather than spend more.

    However, that is a battle Price is determined to fight. "I have always expected that we are going to be at least as powerful as the two organisations put together. Our agenda is bigger than one NTO," she said.

    The problem is not so much the amount of money but the way it arrives. The E-skills NTO receives guaranteed funds of only £300,000 each year. The rest, some £2.5m last year, comes as project funding from the Department of Trade & Industry, the Department for Education and the Regional Development Agencies. This part of the budget varies each year, depending on how successful the E-skills NTO is at bidding for projects.

    "It is very hand-to-mouth. It does not allow us more than a 12-month plan. Everything is stop, start, stop, start," said Price. "We need more guaranteed core funding that would enable us to set our agenda for a longer term."

    Some of this money could come from the £6.5bn allocated to the Government's Learning and Skills Council. Price hopes to convince the Government to spend a significant slice of this money on IT. If she is successful, the money could open up a raft of IT training initiatives for small and medium-sized companies.

    The Government has reservations on a training levy for the IT profession. But Price believes ministers might be willing to support the idea of matched funding, if employers are prepared to contribute either in cash or in kind.

    "Without a doubt, if more money flowed from employers, more money would flow from government," said Price. "We are measured and evaluated by the commitment of employers to us. If employers invested more than they do, the Govern-ment would invest more than they do and we would have a long-term approach."

    Convincing business leaders to put their hands in their pockets won't be easy, particularly when many IT departments are facing pressure to cut costs. "It is a chicken and egg situation. We have to show that we are making a difference," said Price. "Companies want bang for their buck.

    "That means, getting more people wanting jobs in IT, ready to step on the rung of the ladder. And we have to ensure that the skills of people in the sector can be kept up-to-date. Whether that is through employer education partnerships, or channelling money through SMEs, that is something we have to work towards."

    CV: Karen Price

    Karen Price is the chief executive officer of the newly-formed E-skills National Training Organisation. She aims to work with the Government, universities, IT users and IT suppliers to ensure that the UK has a steady supply of people with the right IT skills to meet the growing demands of e-commerce.

    Price's varied career has included a spell in education and as a director of her own construction business. No stranger to IT, she joined IBM's corporate affairs division in 1994 and moved to IBM Global Services three years later. There she was given the task of setting up a major qualification programme for IBM staff.

    Price was chosen to be the chief executive of the E-business NTO, a predecessor to E-skills NTO, in 1998. She helped to build the body into a significant organisation, attracting multi-million pound investments for training programmes.

    She has spent the past year unifying the E-business National Training Organisation and the IT National Training Organisation. They became the E-skills NTO in July.

    Price sits on a variety of government skills and IT taskforces, including the Electronics Strategy Group, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the IT Communications and Electronic Strategy Group.

    Key tasks for the E-skills NTO

  • A detailed programme of research into the skills shortage. The results will show which skills are now in short supply and will be in short supply in the future. They will allow employers, universities and training providers to plan ahead

  • Encourage more people to take up careers in IT. This means making the IT profession more attractive to the best and the brightest young people, encouraging more women into the profession and cross training workers from other professions

  • Start dialogue between employers, universities, training companies and colleges. The aim is to make sure they are training people in the skills industry needs most

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