Industry's moral obligation to young people

More than half of large IT-dependent organisations and most small non-technical, IT-dependent businesses across the UK are stuck in a growth and profits limbo due to shortages of skilled IT staff

Something is wrong when you have one million young people unemployed and 100,000 jobs vacant in IT

Ian Livingstone

According to the Corporate IT Forum, an IT user group for business, employment in the IT industry is expected to grow at nearly five times the UK average over the next decade. 

Large corporations continue to actively recruit IT professionals, but more than half of large IT-dependent organisations and most small non-technical, IT-dependent businesses across the UK, are stuck in a growth and profits limbo due to shortages of skilled IT staff. 

London's Tech City has more than 3,400 firms providing 48,000 digital economy jobs – more than double the number of 15 years ago at the height of the dot com boom. Yet its future progress is threatened by a severe IT skills shortage.

This is a result of:

  • A steady decline at all levels in the standard of the computer science educational curriculum over the past 15-20 years
  • UK university applications to study computer science falling by more than 60% since 2002
  • A decrease in numbers of computer science graduates by more than 25% since 2002
  • Some university curricula not being aligned to industry requirements
  • A 50% fall in the number of students striving for jobs in industry since 2002
  • An explosion in the growth of the IT sector over the corresponding period

With an ever-widening skills gap between academia and industry, unless this situation is addressed with some urgency it will seriously weaken the whole UK economy, especially as the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing, the subject body for computing in UK universities, is predicting that demand for IT professionals will rise by 15% rise over the next eight years.

Although there are a plethora of initiatives at school level to reform the curriculum, it is not clear how these initiatives are going to be implemented in 25,000+ schools across the UK. According to Nesta, an independent charity devoted to innovation, the "current initiatives lack the scale, aspiration or comprehensive approach" and "there is a vital need for leadership and coordination to bring together information, training and support".

Additionally, there appears to be little activity addressing higher education curriculum reform. Consequently, graduates have become increasingly ill-equipped to enter a competitive jobs market in a meaningful manner, and overseas students are seemingly better qualified.

It is no good having businesses criticising from the sidelines. They need to be playing an active part in improving the employability of young people by engaging fully and effectively with the education system. Higher education courses should, wherever appropriate, be a collaboration between employers and universities

The Rt Hon Lord Heseltine

Strategically, none of these initiatives are going to address the shortfall and the generational gap that now exists. If we are not proactive in addressing this problem, we will be faced with a minimum 10-year lead time before we see the IT pipeline being replenished.

It is therefore incumbent upon the current generation of IT professionals and large corporations to rise to this challenge in a variety of ways by:

  • Proactively working hand in hand with the universities to produce a curriculum which ensures that graduates are better placed to enter the workplace;     
  • Recognising that graduates do not and will not always have the perfect skills to fit job requirements, and being more amenable to offer longer periods of training to bring new graduates up to speed in the specific area they seek to recruit;
  • Understanding that people have transferable skills in life, and therefore being open to cross-training people from other disciplines to fill the skills shortage;
  • Incorporating half-day release initiatives for IT employees into their existing CSR programmes, to enable skills transfer between industry and academia at all levels. This mutual cooperation in assisting both pupils and teachers is key to overcoming this transitional period;
  • Establishing many more industry-led training facilities/academies (of the ilk already being launched across Germany to address the identical problem) offering internships and diplomas.

What is abundantly clear is that we need the commitment of a strategic industrial partnership: a concerted, coordinated collaboration between the Department for Education, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, and industry, with a champion to lead and empower our nation to fill the jobs that will drive the current "technology disruption" projected until at least 2020 and the inevitable, subsequent IT revolution.

Fixing the IT skills shortage is no longer optional. It is crucial to national competitiveness in the 21st century. Having reaped the benefits of our educational system and careers in IT, industry now has a moral obligation to continue the legacy.

This article is taken from a presentation by Yva Thakurdas (pictured) given in the House of Lords on 20 March 2013.

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