Dialogue is needed to avert a skills shortage

Education and industry leaders must work together

As autumn comes around, employers in all sectors begin to evaluate the school leavers and university graduates that they have recently taken on.

There will, of course, be the usual chorus that young people do not have the skills that the workplace demands, and that schools and universities are failing to keep up with what is required.

This chorus has a point. For the past 20 years or so, there has been widespread agreement that there are serious skills shortages in many areas of British industry. Expertise in IT and computer science is one of the key areas where skills are lacking.

Squandered chances

Over those 20 years, schools, colleges and universities have expanded their computer science and IT teaching departments to try to meet demand, and every child is "guaranteed" the opportunity to learn IT skills and the foundations of computing expertise.

They can take their study and development as far as they choose, through university and into postgraduate study. Or they can go into industry and commerce to become whatever they choose. And because of the shortage of skills and expertise, anyone who is any good can name their price.

Clearly, what is being done is not enough. The shortages remain, and some would say that they are getting worse. At the core of this, there remains a historic - almost cultural - antagonism between the educational establishment and industry, or at least a mutual suspicion of each other's motives.

In the eyes of the educational establishment, industry wants clones: knowledge workers who will perform as directed. Schools and universities, on the other hand, are still perceived by industry as operating 20 years behind the times, unwilling to listen, develop or respond to the needs of industry.

Communication is key

The only way to deal with this is for the two sides to meet and discuss the issue. These discussions should focus on what is needed, and should aim to create conditions in which these needs can be addressed.

Collectively, we need to make progress, rather than reverting to prejudices. Even if the prejudices have more than a grain of truth to them, it is what we collectively do to address them that will decide whether we have an expert and motivated workforce. There is no future in continuing the complaints, but there is a future in putting them right.

Most crucially of all, someone has to pay for all this. And herein lies the rub. If all of this were free, it would long since be done. Narrow self-interest has historically dictated that neither the educational establishment nor industry will pay for anything on which they do not see a direct and tangible return.

This is reinforced by the illusion that you can get something for nothing, that someone - but not us - will pay. The consequence remains that the complaints, accusations and prejudices continue - and nothing actually gets done.

l Richard Pettinger is a lecturer in management at University College London

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