Westminster must follow Islamabad

With Pakistan's cut-price development move, it is time Whitehall took a more progressive approach

With Pakistan's cut-price development move, it is time Whitehall took a more progressive approach

A new initiative from the Pakistan Government appears to offer an IT dream come true for UK businesses looking to cut costs by outsourcing software development offshore.

A mere £6,000 a month will buy you a fully appointed office with broadband Internet access, an accountant, a business manager and a team of software developers at your disposal. And if Pakistan's multiplying technology parks cannot supply the specific skills you require, they will draft in trainers from overseas and develop them to order.

Clearly there is a strong financial case for exploring this initiative. But is it too good to be true?

Where is the catch?
The catch is that IT departments can only outsource so much of their work overseas before the UK finds itself bereft of the skills it needs to remain competitive.

Just as English football teams' preference for the quick fix of a Zola or a Bergkamp over the longer-term logic of developing skills at the grass-roots level threatens the future of the domestic game, so UK companies will steadily deplete our skills base if they send all their development work overseas.

No matter how much of our development we farm out to other continents, there will still be companies whose development needs are too modest to make such a course of action financially viable. When the body of UK skills has atrophied, how will they be able to source the skills they need?

The Pakistani Government is pumping in huge amounts of resources to subsidise its initiative, because it knows that countrywide broadband connectivity and a skills-rich workforce can move it into the forefront of the lucrative IT field.

It is time the UK Government took such a forward-looking approach. Broadband access across the nation remains unsatisfactory. And, despite some good work by bodies such as the E-Skills NTO, attempts to bolster the UK's IT skills base have been patchy at best.

Our IT departments would be mad not to capitalise on any opportunity that arises to drive down development costs. But in the meantime, Westminster has to take a lead from Islamabad in acting to safeguard the future of the IT skills market in the UK.

At least there was one piece of good news in the skills market this week. Sheffield Hallam University is one of several universities turning out instantly useful graduates by offering degrees that are a blend of generic and supplier-specific skills. Now it says it is to start coaching IT trainers in the area's colleges so that they can begin to do the same.

IT professionals have long grumbled about the skills Catch-22, whereby they cannot develop supplier-specific skills because they cannot secure employment, yet cannot secure employment because they have no supplier-specific skills.

If we can cascade this emphasis on practical skills down through our educational system, we shall have progressed some way towards assuring the continued buoyancy of the UK skills market.

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