Skill shortages in the mobile IT solutions market

The demand for mobile IT solutions is increasing rapidly. But are there enough skilled people for this demand to be satisfied?

The demand for mobile IT solutions is increasing rapidly. But are there enough skilled people for this demand to be satisfied?

At the beginning of the year, the IDC reported that the skills shortage that has blighted the industry for the past few years is set to get worse. The research suggested that the shortage of skilled IT staff will grow from five per cent of the job market's total in 1998, to 20 per cent by 2002. The concerns were that skilled staff would be able to boost their already significant salaries as firms tried desperately to hold onto their valuable staff. Of even more concern is the situation that IT is becoming an increasingly important part of all companies' operations and there may simply not be enough people to go round. Response to the skills shortage has been slow throughout Europe and accusations have been levelled at companies that have failed to invoke their own training courses or bring in skilled workers from other continents.

It is fair to say that this problem covers the whole of the IT industry. Simply put, there are not enough skilled people out there to do the jobs available. And it seems that the speed at which the industry is moving makes the situation worse, especially for areas that are at the forefront of technology. One area in particular which is suffering from this problem is the mobile IT solutions market, which includes laptop connectivity and the latest WAP services.

Mobile solutions are becoming an increasingly important part of a company's IT structure. More and more people are working from outside the office, whether from home, another country or simply on the move. There are also many jobs where it is essential to be out of the office, and this can be made much more effective through the use of mobile technology. The classic example here is traffic wardens who now carry hand-held devices for storing relevant information.

Where mobile connectivity is likely to see a huge explosion of growth in the next few years is in the cell phone area. WAP technology has been attracting a lot of attention recently, with many major players backing the standard as the next phase for accessing the Internet. Where the emergence of WAP will take us is still slightly unclear, but if it is to be as big as many predict, and if technology on the move is to become a standard way to work, then it is not just money that needs to be thrown at it.

The development and implementation of new complex technologies needs a breed of highly skilled and highly motivated people to see that the technology reaches its full potential and gets to the people it is aimed at. But it seems that in the case of mobile IT solutions there are just not enough people who are willing and/or able to take the job opportunities that are available.

John Kemp, managing director of mobile computing specialist, 1-2-1 Euro Tech, believes the problem in this sector is greater than elsewhere in IT but is unclear of the solution to this problem. "It is very difficult to find staff with the right level of experience; many of them lack the skills in mobile computing. We currently have 11 vacancies in our company and it is hard to find people who can come straight in and do the job."

"I think the problem has a lot to do with the glamour factor, in that the bigger the box you specialise in, the greater the prestige you have. But this just shows the lack of understanding in the industry about what mobile computing is all about. A lot of people think of mobile computing as something you go and buy from Dixons. At 1-2-1 Euro Tech we deal with everything from the back office system down to the Palmtop and all the pieces in between, " he added.

Kemp admitted that 1-2-1 Euro Tech's attempt to reduce the extent of the problem was to bring in people and train them up, but even this was not guaranteed to help. Due to the great demand for skilled workers, it can be difficult to hold on to valued staff who could be offered enormous salary increases elsewhere at major companies. This not only leaves the company as short on skill as before, but out of pocket because of training costs.

One possible solution is that the major manufacturers could get involved with their partners in the struggle to find or train skilled staff. Packages put together by vendors and partners may help tempt those who would not previously have thought about specialising in mobile computing, to go into that sector. It may also be able to dispel some of the myths surrounding mobile computing.

Another problem in getting people into the mobile computing area is the lack of certification available for this market. While there is no difficulty for many to get hold of a Microsoft Certified Engineer certificate, there is currently nothing that relates specifically to mobile computing.

"While there are certain companies that can provide workers with certification for areas like GSM for example," says Kemp. "There is nothing really out there at the moment that would be considered a standard certificate to obtain or that would be recognised by many."

"As a company, we were the first to obtain a certificate as a HP Windows CE competency centre. There are still only three in Europe. This proves we have a good solid background in CE, which we can show to our customers. It took a lot of hard work and about four to five months to obtain, but it does present us with a good deal of prestige against our competitors."

While these kinds of certification can help business, and are at least available in increasing numbers, they are unlikely to solve the growing problem of obtaining skilled workers.

"If I knew how to solve the skills shortage, we wouldn't have a problem with it, " said Kemp. "We've found so far the best way is to train people up, but it's still not perfect."

M-commerce is the new word on many manufacturers lips. People are starting to see the moneymaking potential that the mobile phone could have, and not just for the operators like Orange and Vodafone. These companies are also desperate to make sure they are there when the predicted m-commerce explosion happens. Six companies are currently bidding for a licence for the third generation of mobile phone technology. The four main UK operators are there, bidding for the licences, with the total money involved already having surpassed £17bn.

Some say shopping on your mobile phone will be the next big consumer move. WAP is likely to be the facilitator for this transformation of the mobile from a basic communications device to an all-purpose tool. So far, roll-out has been limited to a small number of phones, but the interest it has generated has been huge, possibly more so than the services that are currently available.

As WAP moves from the cutting-edge of technology into mainstream acceptance, the shortage of skilled professionals in mobile solutions is expected to rise significantly. In a market that is specialised, and which can deter many people from being pigeon-holed, an explosion of popularity may help attract more workers into the sector over time, but this could initially lead to a vast gulf between what customers want and what can be supplied to them.

How this gap is to be filled in the mobile computing sector is still unclear - as it is unclear for the whole of the IT industry. While the problem is exaggerated by the specialist nature of this sector, it is, in essence, still suffering from the same problems as the IT industry in general. In effect, there are not enough people who want to work in IT and the market is expanding too fast for any measures that are introduced to have a significant impact.

This may not just be the responsibility of the companies involved, and there is an argument that the Government needs to get involved if it is to fulfil its commitments to taking the UK to the forefront of the online economy. Recent measures introduced in the Budget were designed to help entrepreneurs establish online operations. The only concession to actually getting the workers that are needed to set these operations up was to relax visa restrictions for IT workers from abroad. While this may act as a palliative, it will not alter the fundamental problem and the skill shortage will continue.

Furthermore the recently introduced IR35 income tax legislation is likely to have a significant negative impact on skilled IT personnel. IR35 will tax long term contractors as if they worked for the company they are contracting for. By the Government's own studies they estimate 66,000 small businesses will close through the implementation of this policy, mainly in the knowledge-based sector. This will hit IT companies hard, and is likely to discourage many from wanting to get involved in this area, or drive workers abroad.

Education needs to be looked at and incentives need to be introduced from both sides. This process is likely to take a long time and, until then, skilled IT workers can continue to expect high wages and continual head-hunting. In mobile computing, the same processes need to be looked at, but perhaps to a higher degree.

Unfortunately there is no one right way to solve this problem, but perhaps it hasn't been taken seriously. Perhaps this will change in the future if companies and the Government introduce stronger measures. Then again, this subject has been a hot topic for many years and still the situation gets worse. As with many things in life, changes are often made only after there has been a disaster of some sort. It would be a shame though if this is to be the only way of provoking the necessary change in the labour market.

Paul Grant

This was last published in April 2000

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