IT professionals will have the chance to have their say on the future of the IT profession as the public-private sector IT training organisation E-Skills UK launches a consultation to identify the key IT skills priorities for business over the next five years.
E-Skills UK was created five years ago to bridge the gaps between the IT industry, government and higher education. Its remit is to address technology-related skills issues that each sector would be able to tackle alone, ranging from addressing the poor image of IT, the recurring skills crisis, and the relevance of IT education in universities.
Karen Price, E-Skills chief executive, says the organisation wants the IT industry's help in prioritising its work for the next five years.
"We want to hear from as many people as possible in terms of what the focus and the priorities need to be. It is then our job to turn them into programmes and projects," she said.
Over the coming five years, Price hopes to see a further strengthening of the links between government, higher education and industry. The Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills published a document eariler this month pledging to "empower" sector skills councils. The document, which urges universities and employers to work together through the sectors' councils to improve the standard of IT skills in the UK, represents a step change in government thinking.
"It absolutely sets the scene for clear relationships between employers and higher education, and it puts sector skills councils at the heart of that dialogue," said Price. "Had that been published five years ago, I would have achieved a lot more."
But Price says she is proud of what E-skills has done nonetheless. She lists a raft of projects that she feels have made a difference to the IT industry.
They include the IT diploma, which combines education in busienss and technology. It starts this September with its first intake of 14- to 19-year-olds. IT employers have been closely involved in developing the curriculum. They are hopeful it will fire the interest of teenagers in IT and produce future employees with the right mix of skills.
A new IT management for business degree is attracting hundreds of students and support from dozens of employers in 13 universities. The degree aims to give students a good balance of the IT and commercial skills employers say they want.
Computer Clubs for Girls has encouraged 120,000 schoolgirls to get involved in IT-related projects, often with help from local employers. Price said two-thirds of the girls who have taken part say they are now thinking of an IT career, potentially helping to tackle the gender imbalance in IT. Similar clubs for both boys and adults could follow.
"It is having a significant impact on the attitudes of a generation of girls. It is exciting thing because it is a long term investment - the first girls who got involved are still only 15," she said.
One of E-skills' original aims was to increase employers' satisfaction with graduates' skills, by giving them more of a say in the way students are taught IT in higher education. Price says she believes employers are becoming happier with the quality of student coming out of the education system.
Employers say the next step is to address the attitudes of the rest of the workforce. Gideon Kay, IT & business transformation director at Haden Building Management, said managers in other areas of business need to appreciate IT more.
"What is important is getting the mid-level to senior business managers to have a better understanding and appreciation of the sort of advantages and benefits that technology can bring, and how it can be used in business. The gap between their understanding, and the understanding of the new graduate-level intake, needs to be closed."
"IT-enabled change and technology exploitation for managers, coupled with business analysis skills, are in short supply yet are critical to business performance enabled by technology," said Jos Creese, head of IT at Hampshire County Council.
Price said she wants E-skills to continue to help produce "hybrid" individuals who can bridge the gap between technology and business. Rising costs in India mean companies are increasingly looking elsewhere for offshoring opportunities. The UK's role in this new global economy will involve managing the whole IT process, and co-ordinating IT work across different continents.
"One of the things we have been able to do is focus on the skills set the UK needs to manage large projects and large programmes using a disparate and global technical team. We are bringing to the fore this hybrid individual who balances technology and business. This is what underpins a lot of our work."
Ollie Ross, director of research at the Corporate IT Forum, echoed the importance of raising awareness of IT's business benefit. He said, "We would welcome any initiatives designed to encourage people into IT and to learn a balanced mix of business and IT skills.
"Large UK businesses now sorely need IT people who understand how technology works in a commercial setting."
Price says the UK could emerge with a unique set of business and technology skills. "I think it is really important that we focus on the global economy and on the fact that there is a global workforce now. The idea that it's only large corporates that get their coding and other IT work done in India is nonsense. It is smaller businesses as well.
"The global workforce brings huge benefits to the UK economy. I want to focus on the things that are unique to the UK, that could position the UK best to take advantage of the enormous opportunities that are out there."
Employers back E-Skills initiatives
Rafik Ishani, manager, Deloitte: "The IT Management for Business degree programme is important and groundbreaking. I have never seen something like this before. It is phenomenal to have such a diverse group of employers around a table and collaborating to progress the ITMB degree programme."
Bill Thomas, president of Europe, EDS: "E-Skills UK has done an excellent job of pulling together a large representative body of people interested in IT skills across the UK. It has been very successful in holding that group together."
Ben Wishart, group IT director, Whitbread: "E-Skills UK creates a forum for us to debate and achieve consensus on matters which are critical for our businesses and the economy."