Thought for the day:Skills crisis? Pull the other one

Incisive columnist and IT expert Colin Beveridge looks at a hot issue of the day.Later this week representatives from industry...

Incisive columnist and IT expert Colin Beveridge looks at a hot issue of the day.Later this week representatives from industry and Government will meet at the E-skills Summit in Greenwich to review training initiatives and explore ways of improving co-ordination between the various parties involved.

So far, so good. I am always keen to see co-operation, collaboration and communication, especially when there is the prospect of genuine progress as an outcome.

However, I start to feel sceptical when I hear the term "skills crisis".

My challenge to the advocates of the skills crisis theory is quite clear - it's time to put up or shut up! Show us how big it is and where it exists.

I have never been convinced that there is such a thing as an IT skills crisis in the UK - as far as I am concerned it is simply another myth - just like the Loch Ness Monster - that creates Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. And we all know that FUD can make fortunes, don't we?

Let's examine the evidence. If our country is suffering such a dramatic shortfall in trained IT staff, then the weekly computer papers would be the size of a unified London telephone directory - packed full of job ads.

The truth is that the weeklies have never been thinner, not even during the widespread recessions of the early 1990s. Sure, some of the job advertising has gone online, but the overall number of vacancies has obviously fallen substantially.

Another bellwether of the UK jobs market is the freelance sector - when skills are in short supply, the contractor base always increases. By all measures the UK contract market has suffered a very sharp decline over the past 18 months.

OK, I can hear you say that my so-called "evidence" is purely anecdotal and cannot be substantiated.

Fair enough, then please give me the real numbers, the real scale of actual vacancies, broken down by skills and sector.

I have asked for these statistics at "skills" conferences but the short answer is that nobody has them. Nobody. The Government and the whole training industry is flying blind. Completely blind and there are no instruments available to steer them through the fog.

Even so, the Government still declares its lofty ambition for the UK to be the best place in the world to do e-business. Whatever that means.

As a fairly logical person, I tend to approach a large problem by breaking it down into smaller pieces, until each component becomes manageable - I suppose that's why I was quite a good programmer in my time. So why on earth can't we apply this approach to managing the UK skills base?

First, we need to determine whether we actually have a skills crisis, then we need to know how the national skills profile will change over time - in other words, how many people will we need and what skill-sets must they be carrying.

The best way to do this must be to gather real statistics regularly, rather than just continuing as we do now - blindly throwing more resources into training, without really understanding the scale, or nature, of the problem.

In the meantime, I genuinely want to hear from you if you have hard evidence of a real e-skills shortage in your organisation, no matter how small - please put it on the table so that we can start to build a real picture of where we are today and get a better idea of how we can all gear up properly for the future.

Is the skills crisis just a myth? >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Colin Beveridge
is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, including Shell, BP, ICI, DHL and Powergen.

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