Why is the skills pool still dry after so many redundancies?

Anyone who is looking for staff with specific IT skills will disagree with the Government and a contractors' group which claim...

Anyone who is looking for staff with specific IT skills will disagree with the Government and a contractors' group which claim that there is no skills shortage. So where are they?

Confusion reigns as to whether the supposed IT skills shortage, does in fact exist. According to the Professional Contractors Group, the IT skills crisis is now over. The Government apparently agrees, and has moved to strike all IT jobs from its skills shortage list.

In direct contrast, research from market analyst IDC suggests that the IT skills shortage is increasing and will rise by up to 19% over the next three years, leaving almost 1.7 million positions in Europe unfilled by 2005.

While industry bodies and analysts argue the point, common sense would suggest that, following the recent spate of redundancies that left thousands in the industry without a job, a skills shortage should be out of the question. But while the skills pool is far from dry, what skills are actually in there and are they of any use?

While skills such as basic network administration are commonplace, what happens when you need someone skilled in more specialist areas such as voice and data convergence or Java?

In many cases, it is these emerging technologies that companies are focusing on, so these skills are becoming ever more important. However, even when you are after someone to fill a fairly mainstream position, the recruitment process can be a real eye-opener - there are a surprising number of poor candidates.

It should come as no surprise that when redundancies are made, the least competent staff are the ones who are jettisoned. So while the labour pool may have the skills on paper, much of the time they're not actually the most talented workers. This may sound harsh, but if 20% of the IT workforce is below par, then after redundancies, the labour pool is going to contain quite a slice of this 20%.

One of the main problems that these IT job seekers suffer from is their lack of broad ranging skills. It is incredibly difficult to recruit people with the right mix of technical skills and commercial nous.

Most organisations these days do not just want "techies", they want people who can also work well in a team, solve problems and drive a project. Managing budgets and presenting ideas have become as important as the solid technical skills, but it is this cross-section of qualities that is so hard to find.

This problem is not helped when the large organisations such as IBM and Microsoft, which have for years acted as universities for the industry, are doing far more to keep hold of their staff.

Traditionally, IT workers learned their trade here before moving on to smaller companies. With the big players hogging the best people, these skills are not being spread out, leaving a gulf further down the supply chain.

Training is the obvious answer to this problem, but as companies focus on squeezing costs out - through redundancies and budget cuts - they are reluctant to spend any money on training. It is still far more cost-effective to employ someone who already has these skills - albeit more difficult.

So if companies are not training their employees, how does the industry overcome this problem?

It can lay some blame at the door of the universities and colleges, and they can still do much to help the problem. The courses they offer must reflect the needs of the industry, and this means teaching business skills such as communication and leadership as well as the technical skills.

Another problem that could hamper UK workers trying to get back into the industry is a possible influx of foreign labour.

The Government has put some barriers in place by striking IT skills from the shortage list. This means that companies must now advertise in the UK before they go abroad.

However, if the right skills mix doesn't exist, we risk alienating our own workforce as companies are forced to recruit from overseas.

Simon Brown is director at Scalable Networks

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