Commenting on Microsoft research into the skills needed for future business success, Bill Gates highlighted that the high-fliers of tomorrow will be those that continue to develop a strong and diverse skill set. "If you look at the most interesting things that have emerged in the last decade, they all come from the realm of science and engineering, but communication skills and the ability to work well with different types of people are very important too", he said.
What Gates identifies is that a combination of skills will be key to future business success - something that is born out by the research. The research has found that top business leaders still view IT aptitude as more relevant to future generations than those currently in employment. Whilst they acknowledge its importance, business decision-makers do not currently value IT skills as much as others, choosing instead to highlight the importance of a number of other attributes, such as team working and interpersonal skills.
Importantly though, this view was held by the older generation of managers currently in senior positions, rather than the younger ones coming through.
This research highlights two major themes: firstly, the industry still has a problem with its image in the boardroom and secondly, there is a generational gap in how IT is perceived.
But the challenges we face go deeper and I think IT has an image problem. Of the IT graduates the UK nurtures, 70% choose alternative activities or jobs outside of the IT profession. This is set against a backdrop of an IT industry growing at five to eight times the national growth average and requiring 150,000 new entrants each year to meet demand.
But between 2001 and 2006 there was a drop of 43% in the number of students taking A-levels in computing. Clearly something is going wrong.
We may hear this story often enough, but what is the industry doing to address the challenge? Reassuringly, there is a consensus that we need to work together, and there are a number of things the industry is doing to meet the issues we face.
For instance, companies including Accenture, LogicaCMG, BBC, Apple and John Lewis and Microsoft are co-operating on the "Revitalise IT" initiative. Supported by the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) and led by E-Skills UK, this scheme brings together employers, universities and schools, and is expected to involve more than 40,000 students. It looks to address the skills challenge on two fronts: an "Ambition" prong aims to transform the views of young people towards IT, whilst the "Catalyst" pillar looks to support universities in creating and promoting a curriculum that reflects the needs of the IT industry.
A group of industry leaders has also been working with E-Skills UK to develop an IT Diploma as part of the Government's flagship strategy for 14-19 education. The Diploma will transform the way 14 to 19 year olds learn about technology. Combining general education and applied learning, the Diploma will prepare young people for university and work, whatever their ability or career aspirations.
But alongside the efforts of industry, government and academia, I believe it is incumbent on each and every one of us to evangelise about IT. When we are at a dinner party and someone asks us what we do, we should feel proud about having a career that enables us to contribute to some of the most important and exciting developments in people's lives. This way I think we will start to dispel some of the negative misconceptions people have about IT.
The key to success in meeting the skills challenge is the ability to change both the perception of the industry as well as working in partnership with academic institutions to build courses that excite students and work for industry. What is clear is that this kind of approach will only be successful if we work together as a sector in collaboration with government, academia and, ultimately, the young people who will shape the future of our industry.