The real enemy is at home

This week we reveal that supermarket chain Somerfield is joining the growing group of UK businesses that are moving IT functions...

This week we reveal that supermarket chain Somerfield is joining the growing group of UK businesses that are moving IT functions overseas.

IT analyst group Gartner describes offshore outsourcing as a "must do" for major UK IT user organisations, and expects the market to grow by more than 40% this year. But trade unions and others have raised warning voices over potential job losses and the need to retain skills in the UK. So should we be worried by this stampede offshore?

No, as long as the existing rules are not abused.

For UK businesses, the attractions of offshore outsourcing are obvious and compelling. Access to high-quality technical staff with key skills at a significantly lower cost than in the UK, and the ability to provide 24x7 support, are advantages that few UK firms can afford to ignore.

One of the benefits of a global economy is that activities can be carried out where it is most economic and effective to do so. If UK firms fail to take advantage of this they will simply put themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Of course, there can be moral arguments against shifting work overseas. But we are not talking here about sweatshops or child labour. In India, which has 80% of the global offshore outsourcing market, the IT workforce is an elite group and the IT industry attracts some of the brightest graduates.

Rather than desperately trying to hang on to every domestic programming and support job - the prime areas for outsourcing - we should be ensuring that we are building a UK IT workforce with the skills needed in the 21st century. Despite the slowdown in IT development, there is a strong demand for people who combine an understanding of technology with other general business skills. The need for these "hybrid" IT professionals is likely to grow rapidly as the economy picks up, more than compensating for the jobs transferred overseas.

There are encouraging signs, such as the work being conducted by E-Skills UK with universities to develop a new IT curriculum comprising technical, business and communications skills in equal measure. Some of the more forward-thinking UK businesses are taking steps to develop their IT workforce, for example by identifying those with the potential and giving them a combination of training and experience in other parts of the business to broaden their skills.

But most UK businesses are still showing little interest in helping to identify and plan for these emerging skills shortages. This, rather than the growth in offshore outsourcing, is the biggest threat to the future of the UK IT workforce.

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