How many times have we heard that UK IT departments are suffering the ill-effects of a skills gap?
Avid readers of CIO UK online will probably already have read our news story Offshoring to blame for IT skills gap, in which we quoted an Ernst & Young report which blamed our current and future skills gap on the huge appetite IT had for outsourcing in the 90s and the way it throttled off local candidates.
E&Y's data on the contemporary shrinkage in UK university graduates in core feeder subjects for IT (maths, physics and computer engineering) does indeed make shocking reading, falling from 32,000 such graduates in 1998 to 8,000 in the same subjects by 2000.
But the problem of not being able to find the people you need to fill vacant roles is, in truth, far more complex than blaming industry and educational trends.
Those involved at the sharp end of IT recruitment as CIOs and senior IT managers differ in their perception of what the shortage is actually of and how it can be made up. On one side are the Raspberry Pi-men (and Pi-women, though there are far too few of those) who blame a general lack of exposure to technology in early education. By seeking to recreate the BBC Micro effect of an earlier era, they hope to inspire a generation of young programmer/technologists. They believe that putting a Pi on every desk is a way of sparking a lifelong interest in programming and technology. And we're all for that.
Another group are not so concerned about the clearly defined IT development roles of the future, believing that there is always a plentiful supply of programmers with the necessary skills. If there is a shortage, they say, it is quickly filled by those adding to their skill set to make themselves more employable.
For this second group, the issue is far more about filling the more senior, strategic, posts: roles like systems architects, programme managers and business analysts. The problem is that these are often roles developed in an organisation over time and honed by experience and exposure to real world problems. And one company's chief architect is not necessarily another's. As a result these staff are hard to buy off-the-shelf, hard to find ready-trained by third parties, and, in short, just hard to find.
If we can't even agree about what the problem is, maybe it's not so surprising that we are struggling to come up with the solution.
Actually the 1990s outsourcing example Ernst & Young cites is an example of an attitude many in the IT industry still have to staffing. It's an approach made all the more extreme by the financial strictures we are all currently working under: organisations believe they can and should always be able to 'buy in' the skills and expertise they require on demand, and that it is someone else's concern to get these people up to speed.
Yet if the organisations want skills and expertise uniquely related to their business and their set of technology products and services, surely they must take some responsibility for developing them. If organisations do, and then so do their competitors, the pay-off is that suddenly the market is heaving with people who boast the very skills you crave.
British industry has steadfastly refused to accept this truth. The argument that this is not a realistic ambition in crisis-torn Britain persists.
There are other arguments relating to higher grade IT roles, particularly about the recognition of IT as a career and a profession with clear boundaries and definitions. If kids could see the value and creativity of a chief architect, maybe they would want to be one when they grew up.
Of course, these comments sound identical to those heard for decades at engineering institutions as they tried to rid engineers of the image of a train driver wiping his hands with an oily rag and imbue it with suitable professional status. For them it has been a long, hard and exhausting struggle.
But who leads the equivalent struggle on behalf of the IT industry and CIOs? 'They' is a common word in such discussions, as in: "They should do something". The BCS? The institution of engineering and technology? The very fact that we don't know who 'they' are speaks volumes.
So is there a skills shortage? Yes, and it will continue until we finally take control of our destiny and stop thinking we can continue to buy in all our expertise from the lowest bidder on demand and push all responsibility for managing the pipeline of new talent out to others.