No time for complacency

The IT skills shortage has abated, but it will soon return if IT bosses fail to stay alert and invest

The IT skills shortage has abated, but it will soon return if IT bosses fail to stay alert and invest

It's official: the IT skills crisis is over at last. At least, that is the view of the Home Office, which last week announced it was dropping the fast-track visa scheme for overseas IT workers. The UK, it seems, has more than enough IT skills without drafting in foreign expertise.

At this point in time the Home Office is correct, and the results of the latest SSP/Computer Weekly Quarterly Survey of Appointments Data and Trends corroborate its belief.

The survey shows no sign of an end to the current IT jobs recession. Posts advertised on the Web in the second quarter of 2002 were down by 66% on the corresponding quarter in 2001; jobs offered in newspapers were down by 80%; and salaries on offer have remained almost static, with the average annual rise mirroring inflation at 1.6%.

But it would be premature to sound the death knell of our skills problems just because the Home Office currently has no official shortage list for IT skills. Things are never that straightforward in the UK IT jobs market.

For the moment, supply is meeting demand. But this could change overnight, should frozen projects start to thaw out, and development budgets rise again. Who knows when the next killer application or the next "millennium bug" will reveal itself, sending IT managers on a frenzied recruitment drive?

In 1998, there was little demand for Web-based skills. But by the turn of the millennium, IT workers with these skills were naming their price.

Regardless of the peaks and troughs of demand, there will always be shortfalls in certain skills. According to SSP, for instance, demand for embedded software, SAP and UML skills has risen in the past 12 months; and skills in customer relationship management applications are also increasingly in favour.

A longer-term IT labour problem will continue to beset the UK for as long as it fails to set in place mechanisms to ensure that the supply of skills can track changing demands into the future. To become complacent now, just because our skills needs have been met for today, tomorrow and next week, would be dangerously naive.

IT managers must keep a vigilant eye on the horizon, so that they are not taken by surprise when the need arrives for a new generation of skills. Does mobile commerce look set to transform the way your organisation does business in the next two years? If so, you should be putting the appropriate skills in place today.

You must also continue to train employees. In a static job market, it is tempting to think that you need not offer training as a means of staff retention. But failure to do so will soon backfire.

Finally, you need to assume the role of public relations officer for IT. This means boosting the profile of your department around the business and the community within which it operates; working hard to draw more women into IT; and ensuring that UK children leave school open to the possibilities and benefits of a career in IT.

Are you prepared to invest a little of your time into safeguarding an adequate IT skills set for the UK?

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