Think long term to survive skills gap

The shortfall in ITskills has led some to describe the situation as a "crisis". But is this mere hyperbole? Not according to...

The shortfall in ITskills has led some to describe the situation as a "crisis". But is this mere hyperbole? Not according to Simon Mingay, vice-president for research at analyst firm Gartner, writes Ross Bentley.

Simon Mingay, vice-president for research, Gartner Group

"As with most things in the IT industry, there is always a lot of hype," says Mingay. "Things do get talked up a lot but, in this instance, I do think there is a skills crisis.

"I talk to four or five Gartner clients each day and at least two of them tell me they have a skills-related problem."

Mingay is quick to emphasise that it is skills, not people, that are in short supply. "There are plenty of people in-post but they are not acquiring the new skills quickly enough. I am talking about the classic procedural Cobalt programmer moving into the object oriented C++ and Java field." he says.

"Part of the problem is that technology changes so fast that it is hard to keep up."

However, quick-fix measures can be dangerous warns Mingay.

"Sending experienced procedural programmers on a short course to learn Java etc is not profitable in the long term," he says. "They are often put into a new project and are expected to operate at the same level as they did on previous tasks - there is no time given for them to get up to speed.

"They are immediately expected to make important decisions on something that they have very little experience of."

Mingay suggests that instead of having large, flat project teams working under pressure to get projects completed quickly, a way forward may be to have smaller development teams.

"Smaller teams enable a supervisor to take a mentoring role," he says.

"This means that newcomers to the object orientated world have someone to ask when they are not sure and are also taught on the job. While projects may take longer to deliver, there is a reduced risk of mistakes and less chance of the software suffering. "This will avoid the wave of incompetence that is an unfortunate side effect of the skills crisis."

Mingay says the fact that many companies face a shortage of skills reflects a lack of planning by IT departments.

"Taking into consideration that it takes about a year to adequately train a legacy programmer in object oriented, and that most contractors work for six months in one place, companies should look ahead and spec out what skills they will need and how they can best prepare themselves," he advises.

"This will free-up project managers who spend most of their time worrying about what resources they have rather than managing projects. At the moment they are relying too much on external resources, such as outsourcing and contractors.

"This is part of the mix, but advancement and training within companies has to be the way forward in the long run."

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