UK must invest in skills to ensure future IT innovation

Young people may learn how to use PowerPoint at school, but they lack the innovative ICT skills businesses really need

The education secretary, Michael Gove, recently announced he was scrapping the ICT curriculum

In its place, he will introduce new computer science courses. Gove blamed the previous government for dumbing down ICT, suggesting that children are not learning technology skills in schools; they are merely learning how to operate a computer. 

In many schools, ICT had become solely focused on the use of office productivity software. And national education policy had also conflated computing with digital literacy. 

This resulted in many schools confusing the two and not properly supporting either. This has led to a lost generation who don’t have the right technology skills to support our existing workforce. The changes announced by Michael Gove are aimed at correcting this, but it will take years for planned improvements to filter through.

Technology skills shortfall could damage British business

So what signal does this send about the importance that past and existing governments place on nurturing the ICT skills of the next generation? 

Right now, you would be hard pushed to find a business that is not reliant on technology, and this lack of investment in core skills doesn’t bode well for the future competitiveness of British business. 

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We face intensified global competition from Europe and the rest of the world. To compete, Britain must have the right skills and competencies in the workforce to sustain economic potency. 

With the pressure on government spending cuts, however, and in light of these recent developments, is Britain in danger of not having the skills or not investing enough to get the appropriate level of competency within business?

There are also other dimensions at play within the IT business sector to consider – one of which is the impact that outsourcing and offshoring has had on the development of IT skills in the UK. 

Twenty years ago businesses took on significant numbers of graduates and trained them in the latest technical skills. Once trained, those graduates moved around the industry, rounding their knowledge and cross-fertilising ideas, practices and cultures, developing a strong UK-based IT services industry. Today such comprehensive training programmes and even apprenticeships, are sparse.  

UK plc, too, is in danger of not developing programming talent or core technical skills, and if organisations look to bring back operations previously offshored, which appears to be a growing trend, then in all probability they won’t be able to find the skills to build the new onshore teams. 

Indeed, in my experience this problem runs even deeper. This is not just about a lack of internal technical investment – many major IT programmes have been outsourced and as a result management does not have the experience themselves to deal with an insourced operation. 

The same rules apply to the outsourcing industry. In many of the larger outsourcing deals, the outsource provider will typically offshore a lot of what they do because labour is cheaper and the skills more readily available, further exacerbating the problem. So, in many cases, even the outsourcers no longer have the requisite UK-based skills.

Businesses must nurture skills for the future

We now have a generation lacking in foundation skills and experience. If basic knowledge and understanding is not established within the education system, and if, as we often see, businesses don’t compensate for this by investing in fully funded development programmes for existing staff, how will we nurture these vital skills for the future? 

If there is no opportunity for children to learn in school and no opportunity to learn in the marketplace, we are in danger of having future generations that won’t understand ICT at all. 

It is a popular view that Britain’s future strength will flow from innovation and world-class services, but if this is the case and we aren’t investing in the skills required to nurture innovation, particularly in technology, how will we remain competitive on the world stage? 

Collectively, we have a duty to take action now. Changes are afoot within schools, but these will take time to feed through. In the meantime, businesses must do all they can to develop the capability of their people – through formal development programmes or by empowering people through inclusivity and mentoring.  

It is a small step, but if every organisation took this approach, collectively we would pass on and benefit from our shared knowledge.

Charlie Mayes is managing director of DAV Management.

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