School’s out for an IT career

As the number of students passing A-levels and GCSEs in IT continues to fall, is the education system failing to train young people for a career in IT?

This year's results for A-level and GCSE IT qualifications increased industry fears that young people will be unable to provide the IT skills needed in the sector. As the IT skills gap widens and organisations are increasingly outsourcing IT processes to offshore service providers, the future for the UK's IT industry - and economy - looks bleak.

The number of students taking IT-related A-levels fell 2.4% this year compared with 2009. Some 4,065 students were awarded A-levels in computing, compared with 4,710 this time last year - a drop of 13.7%. In addition, 61,022 students took a GCSE in ICT this year compared with 73,519 last year - a decline of 17%.

Inspiring IT curriculum

More than half a million new IT and telecoms professionals are needed in the next five years. E-skills chief executive Karen Price warns that the mismatch between supply and demand threatens to undermine the future productivity and prosperity of the UK. "To compete in this technology-intensive global economy, we need an inspiring curriculum in schools that attracts increasing numbers of talented students into technology-related degrees and careers," says Price.

The IT industry has been vocal on IT education and the decline of the numbers of young people taking IT-related A-levels and GCSEs. The Royal Society has launched an investigation into the way computing is taught in schools. "There is growing concern within the community that the way that computing is presented at school through the ICT curriculum and associated qualifications is extinguishing young people's enthusiasm for computing," said the society in its call for evidence which closes on 5 November 2010.

Practical focus

Award-winning computer science student David Couch said his A-level ICT course lacked practical focus.

And industry recruitment experts agree. Dave Pye, executive member of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation technology sector group and CEO of IT recruitment firm JM group, says the IT diploma's practical skills are more attractive than the traditional GCSE. "With a shortage of IT skills, having much more hands-on experience will be more attractive for the employment taskforce," says Pye. "Anything more practical is going to be a winner."

To provide more practical skills, some educational institutes such as Canterbury Christ Church University are integrating core elements of professionally recognised training programmes. The university has offered ILX Group's project management certificate as part of its undergraduate and postgraduate courses since July 2009.

However, Sid Barnes, executive director of IT recruitment firm Computer People, believes more organisations need to provide training in core skills for school-leavers at apprenticeship level. Barnes says Microsoft and IBM are at the "cutting edge" of recruitment, offering more than 3,000 apprenticeships for young people.

"It doesn't matter if fewer people are doing GCSE and A-levels as long as more are doing apprenticeships. As long as apprenticeship schemes keep on increasing, it's not an issue. It's a step in the right direction," Barnes says.

This year's UCAS figures show a step in the right direction too. The number of applicants for computer science degrees has already risen 2.6% on 2009 before the end of the UCAS clearing process on 17 September, suggesting young people are interested in IT careers.

If school IT education can be improved, perhaps the discrepancy between the supply and demand of IT skills can be solved for UK businesses.

Undergraduate's blog on school IT education

Currently studying at the University of Kent, David recently won a GlaxoSmithKline-sponsored Intern of the Year award following a year-long placement at Intel. He shares his experience of A-level ICT with Computer Weekly.

"I'm not too sure how far A-level [ICT] prepared me for working in IT. Instead of making a brochure for an animal park, we could have started looking at the internals of a computer, or the basics of programming.

"IT has been made too general and there's not enough in-depth information to keep those seriously looking into a computing job interested. At the same time, the courses don't move fast enough to stay up-to-date with the technology."

Skills shortages in IT

Demand for IT staff in the UK continues to rise, resulting in shortages of some software skills.

According to a survey of 400 recruitment and employment agencies across the UK by the Recruitment & Employment Confederation and KPMG, staff skills in SAP, Perl, .Net, IT security and Microsoft Office support are in short supply in permanent roles, with Sharepoint developers and business analysts in demand for temporary vacancies.

Sid Barnes, executive director at Computer People, says there is demand for good project management, developers, infrastructure, business analysts and business intelligence to optimise productivity. ".Net and Java skills are always a favourite," says Barnes.

Computer Weekly's most recent salary and skills survey shows SQL was the skill most in demand in the first quarter of 2010

Rank Software Total number of jobs
advertised in Q1 2010
1 SQL 17,965
2 C 13,432
3 C# 10,230
4 .Net 8,745
5 SQL Server 8,091
6 ASP 7,339
7 Java 6,462
8 HTML 5,013
9 PHP 4,825
10 Javascript 4,815

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