Web reshapes IT's workforce

Skills strategists must run fast to stand still

Skills strategists must run fast to stand still

The shape of future demand for IT skills is becoming clearer and, guess what, it's Internet experts who are in short supply.

According to this week's Computer Weekly/SSP skills survey, demand for Internet skills survived the general downturn in demand in late 1999. Meanwhile, demand for skills like Cobol - which was artificially boosted by the need to fix legacy systems before Y2K - has plummeted.

This reflects more than just the current fad for dot-com start-ups. It shows that the face of the IT profession is changing.

Three trends emerge as the new IT workforce takes shape. The first is the human element of IT-comms convergence. A new breed of networking and communications professionals is coming to the fore, with skills that cross over both worlds - often focusing on security.

Second, there is the survival and refocusing of object-oriented programming. C++ remains at the top of the list because object-oriented programming for large back-end systems is what adds real competitive edge to e-commerce and e-business.

The challenge for the IT profession's leaders, and the training industry, is to turn out high quality specialists in this field, in large numbers, fast.

The third trend is the relentless de-skilling and shake-out at the lower end of the IT profession. Demand for Microsoft Office skills has fallen by more than 75% in a year - presumably to be replaced by the talking paper clip that pops up when you hit the Help key. The fall in demand for Windows NT skills, despite the growing popularity of the operating system, reflects the same trend.

Both developments are the result of user firms' determination to centralise and automate client-server support. The thin-client revolution will accelerate this trend.

The de-skilling of professions and the replacement of people by machines is a process that started with the industrial revolution. Its appearance in the IT workforce is a mark of the maturity of business IT. But the acuteness of the skills shortage in the late 1990s probably accelerated employers' search for automated solutions to IT support.

For training strategists in government and industry all this means: "Run faster to stand still." Solving the skills shortage no longer means churning out vocationally-trained support analysts. The challenge is at the high end, where we need to attract and retain high quality, creative people.

For the IT professional at the coalface it means, keep a close eye on your own skill set and demand regular, high quality training as part of your employment package. There will still be an IT skills shortage for the foreseeable future - with all that implies for salaries, benefits and job mobility - but not for all skills in all sectors.

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