Let’s focus on skills development instead
Ben Cranham, Head of Corporate Accounts, Trustmarque
Is it surprising to know that when it comes to unemployment six months after graduation, the subject that performs worst is Computer Sciences? If that’s the case, how can the UK IT industry have a skills gap? Are we doing enough to ensure that as time moves on we’re not making the situation worse?
I’ve always felt that the skills gap was a bit of a myth, what we actually had was a combination of a training gap, or a skills misalignment and a market in which employers had struggled to meet the rising cost of trained technology heads.
In the first place, the expansion of the EU brought an influx of IT talent from Eastern Europe. For the first few years the gap between the cost of living in their home countries and that of the UK meant that this surfeit of technology heads could be ‘hoovered up’ at a relatively low-cost.
Of course over time, as these individuals either chose to make their long-term home in the UK and therefore a requirement to earn in line with the UK cost of living, or they returned home, some money saved, this source of cheap skilled labour dried up. I won’t be the only person who has met a taxi driver with an IT background from one of these countries, who has, in the end, found driving a cab more economically advantageous.
At the same time, with companies outsourcing and offshoring first level IT support and application development, organisations have failed to support the next generation of IT specialists coming through.
For these reasons, skilled and experienced IT heads are tough to find, and a skills gap will always appear to exist when organisations are not prepared to pay for those skills.
What can we do to fix the problem? People often raise the issue of the education system. I joined a panel made up of three employers and a lobby group to discuss the IT skills gap at the recent CRN conference in London. Joanna Polawska of the Corporate IT Forum raised the point that ICT lessons were no longer part of the national curriculum.
While many employers would complain that the ICT lessons of the last fifteen years have done little more than teach students how to use PowerPoint and Word, surely removing any requirement to teach this subject is a retrograde step.
Adam Jarvis, CEO at Intrinsic Technology and another panellist, runs a program where members of his team will visit a local college to help give a commercial context to the skills that students are developing. He sees more general business skills as being the biggest gap, with graduates having all the technical acumen, but often a lack of problem solving abilities and initiative.
That ability to think logically and methodically should be taught early on. Dan May, Commercial Director at Ramsac, argued that the old ICT, that we children of the seventies learned, with a few lines of BASIC code on a BBC Micro were much more likely to fire the imagination of the nascent ‘techie’ than were a hundred interactive whiteboards.
At Trustmarque, we’ve worked hard on our ‘home grown timber’ policy. Selecting graduates and interns who have the right ‘soft’ skills (soft but just as hard to find!), good work ethic, good communicator, fast learner, etc., we work to give them the right skills over time, building their ability as they build their career. Doing this takes time, money, patience and an acceptance that there will be a level of failure, but over the last five years, we’ve grown more and more certain that this provides better long-term stability for the skills capital in our business than does relying solely on an external recruitment process.
As technology innovation continues to accelerate, skills get old quickly; the government needs to ensure that those IT workers who are currently unemployed or under-employed are offered training to ensure that their skills remain relevant. Perhaps it’s time that we got these over-skilled cabbies up to date on cloud or big data technology and made them the vanguard of the tech sector recovery. As employers we have to accept that it is a part of our responsibility to keep our employees young or old up-to-date and incentivised to take on new skills, this will be part of an organisation’s competitive advantage in the tough years ahead.
The one thing the panel discussion did leave with me was a sense that we should be doing more as employers to support ICT in primary and secondary education, whether by supporting the lobbying work of the likes of the Corporate IT Forum or by getting actively involved in local schools, it’s vital that we do all we can to ensure that the UK’s technology sector remains vibrant and innovative and is able to attract the best minds of our generations to come.