Bridging the IT skills gap

The skills shortage is always with us. For years, the industry has complained about the difficulties of recruiting appropriately qualified people.

Despite the recession, the sector continues to grow: the Technology Insights 2011 report from sector skills council e-skills UK estimates that more than 550,000 new entrants over the next five years are required to fill IT and telecoms professional job roles in the UK.

Some of these new entrants are needed to replace natural wastage of people who retire or leave the industry. But others are needed to fill new jobs: according to the report, employment in the IT industry is predicted to grow at nearly five times the UK average.

In June 2011, Stephen Leonard, CEO of IBM UK, told The Daily Telegraph that the company had only been able to fill 80 per cent of the 1000 technology jobs it had created in the past year.

“Our combined ability to identify, recruit and retain skilled candidates is weaker today than it has probably ever been,” he said, adding that skills constituted the “biggest challenge we will face in the next five years”.

Yet there are puzzling anomalies. Computer science graduates find it harder to get a job than any other group of graduates: six months after graduating, 17 per cent are still unemployed, compared to an average figure for graduates of 10 per cent, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

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This is despite the fact that there has been a dramatic drop in the number of computer science graduates: in 2009, only 15,000 UK residents applied to study computer science courses, compared to 27,000 in 2001.

Asked in the e-skills UK survey what issues worried them, only three per cent of employers said they were “very concerned” about the availability of skilled IT and telecoms staff.

It’s not easy to unpick what’s going on, but there are some clues. When asked where the biggest shortfall lies, most businesses aren’t complaining about a lack of new graduates; instead the shortfall seems to lie in two main areas.

One perennial area is whichever software development skill is currently fashionable: at the moment, the biggest demand is in the areas of mobile device development, cloud computing, rich media, e-commerce, social networking and banking applications, according to recruitment agency IT Job Board.

The other, more significant, shortage, is of people with higher-level skills such as project management or business analysis — specifically, people who can understand the business.

“It’s very important that anyone who works in the technology side of the industry understands the business world and the value that technology can bring to the customer,” says Carrie Hartnell, director of industry strategy at Intellect, which represents the UK technology industry.