A first or upper second degree from a good university, preferably in a tough-guy subject like maths, physics or computer science, plus two years business experience. That is still seen by many CIOs as a standard entry-level barrier for new recruits.

But there are several reasons why the formula may not work for much longer, why we should think again about bright school leavers who choose not to attend university and whether they should be given greater opportunities to get a foot on the IT ladder.

After all, do we really want to shut the door on our future Richard Bransons, Alan Sugars and Anita Roddicks, not to mention college dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?

There are many reasons why employment and recruitment are changing and why they will change even faster in future. There is a growing realisation among employers that they themselves — rather than schools and universities — are better placed to impart many of the skills people need to succeed in the workplace.

There is also confusion about tuition fees and their impact on the attractiveness of degree courses. Then there is the rise of the global economy. As a recent OECD report said (Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education, OECD 2010):

"In this globalised world, people compete for jobs not just locally but internationally. In the countries of the OECD, demand for highly skilled people is rising faster than supply and demand for low-skilled workers is decreasing faster than supply, reflected in growing unemployment or declining wages for low-skilled individuals. High-wage countries will only maintain their relative wage levels if they can develop a high proportion of very highly skilled knowledge workers, with increasing levels of creativity and innovation."

This certainly applies to the UK, given that nearly a fifth of our 18-24 year-olds are unemployed. The top 10 jobs in demand now did not exist in 2004 and by 2020 there will be 3 million fewer low-skilled jobs in the UK than today.

The same analysis applies to IT, where UK-based operations are being scrutinised as never before by boards of directors looking to cut costs and aware of high-quality cheaper services available from places such as India.

What is the solution to these challenges? I am convinced that all senior IT people in the UK need to take a fresh look at the issues involved, for the sake of their own business and of UK society. Can more be done to inspire and educate young people about IT careers?

Can apprenticeships, internships and work experience programmes help broaden the intake into the profession? How can we engage with young people — school leavers and those still at school — to raise their interest in an IT career?

One successful example of addressing these issues is the Work Inspiration (WI) programme that was started just over a year ago by Business in the Community (BiTC), a business-led charity that aims to improve business performance and promote responsible business practice. WI seeks to provide relevant, meaningful and inspiring work experience for young people aged 14-19 that is useful for both the employer and potential future employee.

It seeks to break down the misconceptions and prejudices that all too often exist on both sides.

Richard Norris, WI Programme Manager (seconded to BiTC from BT) said: "The key is to provide genuinely inspirational work experience — not making the tea and photocopying — that give young people a real insight into the world of work and what a business career has to offer."

The aim of the programme is to give young people a clearer idea of the qualifications they will need to pursue different types of career and to inspire them to remain in education to get those qualifications, either on a day-release basis while working or a full-time basis.

But, either way, employees should come away with a clearer sense of direction and purpose after their WI experience. The WI programme also enables them to meet role models, get an idea of the diversity of opportunities and career paths in today’s business world. They should get a feeling for what people in different business roles actually do day-by-day.

The programme has already provided 100,000 work inspirations following an overwhelming response from the business community. Within my own company, I have seen huge enthusiasm at all management levels for the 500 placements we have organised.

These have included problem-solving sessions held with big clients (with extremely positive feedback from those clients) as well as face-to-face Q&A interview sessions with some of our top executives — sessions found especially useful  by young people discovering that there can be many routes to success in the business world.

And, in support of WI, our long-running and expanding apprenticeship programme is encouraging young people including school-leavers to develop a career in IT with us.

We in IT need to reach a broad talent pool and attract people from diverse backgrounds to provide the breadth of outlook and innovation that our equally diversified colleagues, users and clients expect. CIOs need to think hard about their future human resources, and we as a nation need to get our young people work-orientated regardless of their academic direction.

So, let’s start bringing those two objectives together. Let’s start aligning the training and education plans of young people with the changing needs of employers.

Pic: o5com cc2.0