Business and education must unite to tackle IT skills shortage

A lack of graduates and A-level IT entrants threatens business.

There is a saying, attributed to the Jesuits, that goes "Give me a child of seven, and I will show you the man." It may be facile to apply it to the IT skills shortage, but there is a truth here from infancy to adulthood, our education system is failing the industry

Maths and science are undernourished in schools, and it is getting worse. While seven-year-olds in the UK may receive rudimentary instruction, the majority are uninterested. As children become adults, the state invests a lot of money in university education. But again, maths and science lose out.

Of the 14% of university students who study these disciplines, roughly 50% come from abroad. The bottom line is that we do not have enough scientifically-skilled people coming through the system.

The Vietnamese example

It gets worse. Graduates are likely to leave with knowledge that will have to be unlearnt or enhanced using their first employer's investment.

Meanwhile, Vietnam is focusing on IT innovation. It is churning out some of the world's leading IT thinkers. More than 80% of its students are scientists. And the country is not alone: it is the same with China, Japan, Taiwan, India 

Without urgent action, the future is bleak. The UK business environment is adaptive notice how we learned to fill our skills gap in healthcare, hospitality, and building. And so too can our IT needs be outsourced, or supplied by migrants. But do we want to sacrifice our digital innovation forever? Do we want to become increasingly parasitic in our use of IT and in the development of new technologies?

We can recover, but not with gentle remedial action. There needs to be a change of attitude at the very top. Ten years of "education, education, education" has had little effect.

But it is too easy to blame just the government. Where investment will be most swiftly beneficial is where big business meets tertiary education. In partnership, universities and enterprises can close ranks to work on the practical gaps. The shared goal must be to give life to a generation of innovation-hungry prodigies. 

Business attitudes

On-the-job training in the UK keeps our IT workers going, but there must be a shift to concentrate on tomorrow's staff. It seems that business has abdicated its responsibility for funding and energising cutting-edge university IT courses. With sponsorship and inspiration, firms can show students that there are rewarding careers in IT. 

Conservatively, it will take 15 years to fill the skills gap. If each decent-sized firm provided excellent on-the-job training today, sponsored students next year and worked with a university on designing a vocational course in five years, the UK would be back on track.

With momentum at this level, the trickle-down effect could mean that schoolchildren may reach up to a career in IT rather than stumble upon it.

● Paul Smith is global managing director of outsourcing at Harvey Nash

Good news on UK skills shortage >>

Vietnam facing economic boom on the back of IT >>

Council for Industry and Higher Education and LogicaCMG report into graduate shortage >>

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