Talking loud on skills

The ICT business think-tank the Real-Time Club hosted a "working dinner" last week to discuss the recommendations which the...

The ICT business think-tank the Real-Time Club hosted a "working dinner" last week to discuss the recommendations which the E-Skills National Training Organisation will soon be making to the Government on how to shorten the IT skills gap. Those present were a microcosm of the IT industry and their wide range of views reflect this - IT director, suppliers, business people and academics all had their say.

Proposals to remedy the skills shortage came under the scrutiny of the Real-Time Club. Ross Bentley reports

Below are a selection of the opinions voiced.

Sources of IT talent

There was an eloquent speech on the problem of identifying the sources of IT talent: "We all work with IT people who have a host of O- and A-levels as well as with those who don't. There seems to be no correlation between the current qualification systems and those who have an aptitude for IT.

"We should be looking not only at those with computer science certificates but to people from the creative side - IT is a creative profession that could be relevant to artist and architects. We talk of needs but do we spend enough time considering the potential sources?"

Several ideas flowed on from this, "How do we identify potential entrepreneurs from an early age? How do we nurture them? The current schooling system does not accommodate this."

"Giving every school kid a computer would be a start," said another participant.

A university lecturer had an interesting point to make: "Many university lecturers in Computer Science would struggle to get a job if they went back into the industry. This is because skills change so quickly and it's easy to fall behind - we even have instances of the students teaching the professors."

The Government

"The Government has been making all the right noises but will it deliver?"

"While employers should fund IT training for their employees, the Government should take responsibility for funding the re-training of those without work or on low wages. But the Government has to approach things strategically. It is no good just opening centres around the country and expecting the great unwashed to enter."

"Are we, really being taken seriously by the Government? There is no-one from the civil service here tonight - why not?"

Future needs of IT

"If we could predict more accurately the future needs of the IT industry, we would have a better chance of solving the skills problem," was one opinion.

We can paint scenarios but we have a major problem in looking forward with any clarity. We can accurately predict the needs two years hence but any attempt to foresee what the needs will be in five years time tend to be merely an extrapolation of the two-year studies. There is a wealth of data out there but we need to make more of this information.

Training

"Large suppliers aren't taking a role in training graduates in their technologies. A few years down the line, we then find a dearth of qualified people with relevant experience."

"Education is something people do for themselves."

"We must not forget the role of private training companies - they have proved the most effective over the years."

"You cannot divorce training from placement. Training organisations need to be close to the industry so they are aware what skills are in demand. Rather than trying to produce a large amount of IT workers, we should be concentrating on producing quality workers - quality not quantity."

Women and IT

The age-old dilemma of how to attract more women into the IT profession was a major talking point.

It was suggested that if more women began to seriously consider a career in computing then we'd be much further down the road to reducing the skills gap. After all, they make up half of the working population.

But what is their incentive? inquired one speaker, when virtually all of today's systems are written by white males. There are not enough positive role models.

And look at the role models they do have, added another attendee - the Larry Ellisons and Bill Gates of this world.

"The impression to the outside world is that they are nerdy, unpleasant men. This surely puts women off." One idea was that we should start emphasising the contribution IT has made to society as a whole. If IT was viewed as a service industry to the public that had vastly improved our quality of life - would this persuade more women to enter IT?

Agencies

One speaker said that recruitment agencies should carry some of the blame for the current skills shortage.

"It is obvious that the agency system is not matching the skills with the opportunities that exist. Many companies looking for IT staff now stipulate that they will only consider IT workers with two years experience. This is because, in the past, they have been caught out too many times by agencies who were sending them totally unsuitable candidates just to fill interview slots.

To protect themselves, companies have over-compensated and now demand an unrealistic amount of experience - alienating many talented people who would be assets given the chance."

Foreign contractors

One attendee spoke on the growing trend of hiring foreign contractors, especially those from India.

"Our increasing reliance on Indian contractors is both exploitative and dangerous. I know of examples of Indian workers who are working and living over here but are being paid the rates they would get back home - some as little as £200 per month - they are struggling to make ends meet and having to borrow money from colleagues.

"Many stay for only a year or so before returning home, taking a wealth of knowledge with them - it is case of government-sponsored industrial espionage."

Another speaker said, "Considering the global nature of the IT industry, we should consider setting up some kind of international structure for the industry. With English the universal language of business, the UK is in a strong position to influence."

Technology

One speaker complained that IT is an industry that is dominated by products - many of which don't do what they are supposed to.

There is lack of standards as IT suppliers release proprietary systems and compete with each other rather than striving together towards the collective good. If technology was easier to work with then it would be easier to find the skills to exploit it.

A fellow speaker concurred saying, "MS Dos is as friendly as a cornered rat."

Those who work in the industry are accomplices in this issue - there should be more pressure from the market for user-friendly systems to be released. "Perhaps we should be debating how to de-skill the IT industry," he concluded.

Society

"The need to manage your career is not just an issue in IT. Most people today retrain and change direction several times during their working life."

"Among the population, there is a depressing lack of any will to learn new things."

What do you think? Help us thrash out practical solutions to the IT skills shortage. Send your views to ross.bentley@rbi.co.uk

This was last published in March 2001

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