IT skills require industry engagement

Recent figures from Reed's annual job index suggest that the UK need for IT professionals is now 23% higher than a year ago. This could be viewed as a positive sign of a recovering industry pulling itself out of economic recession. However, the news has been met with anxiety and warnings of an imminent skills shortage.

Recent figures from Reed's annual job index suggest that the UK need for IT professionals is now 23% higher than a year ago. This could be viewed as a positive sign of a recovering industry pulling itself out of economic recession. However, the news has been met with anxiety and warnings of an imminent skills shortage.

These fears are based on a growing acceptance that despite the UK having a highly IT-literate population and a history of commercial success in the IT market, the education and learning sector has failed to deliver candidates with skills they can apply in the workplace.

With the number of IT graduates falling, we must ensure that those choosing an IT career benefit from education and training that can take them from IT professional all the way up to CIO. The Open University is spearheading a change in approach by driving better collaboration between industry, government and education. SFIA (Skills Framework for the Information Age) is harnessing business expertise to develop accurate IT job profiles. These detail the skills required for particular positions from the point of view of those in charge of filling them. If OU courses are mapped to this framework, OU students can make the right selection for their particular role or desired position.

With education on the right track, the onus is now on industry to put off-the-shelf IT training back on the shelf and look at staff development as a longer-term, strategic process. Too much faith is put in IT accreditations alone to develop staff for the fast-paced, ever-changing world of IT. Instead, businesses need to work in partnership with IT education specialists to incorporate accreditations within an academic framework. This not only improves IT capability but ensures this capability is successfully applied in real work situations.

However, this approach will only work if training providers are certain of the industry relevance of their courses. Through SFIA as well as a collaboration with the CBI, the BCS and e-skills UK, the OU is inviting employers to directly influence OU programme content and ensure that any investment in staff development guarantees real performance impact in the workplace.

Whatever the future of the UK's IT sector in the uncertain economic climate, it is clear that greater collaboration between industry and the education system must be the way forward. The days of universities producing academic courses without industry impact while IT professionals attend certification courses with no intellectual rigour or business benefit must be consigned to the past.

As well as getting the most out of current IT professionals, by working together we can demonstrate clear career paths up to well-paid senior management roles that may help reverse the declining interest in IT education in schools. The next decade represents both opportunities and challenges for IT in the UK.

Kevin Streater is executive director for IT employer engagement at the Open University. On 9 February 2011 he will be speaking at the Westminster eForum Keynote Seminar: Skills for the UK Digital Economy - delivering the IT professionals of the future.

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