"The skills shortage problem is back on the agenda" - so says Harvey Nash's 2014 CIO Survey. Some might be surprised to hear that it was ever off the agenda, but that's another matter. The survey canvassed the opinions of 3,211 technology leaders from more than 30 countries and, despite "seeing a new spirit of optimism amongst CIOs", it spoke of "a cloud accompanying the silver lining".
According to the survey, 45% of the CIOs interviewed were already concerned about a lack of technology talent in 2013, but this has risen to an alarming 60% in 2014. So here at CIO UK we thought we would explore what CIOs are doing to cope with the situation or even what they might be doing to change it.
However, first things first: what's caused the shortage and which skills are most in short supply? According to Richard Protherough, managing director of IT recruiter Spring Technology, it's a mixture of economics and educational choices.
"During the recession there was a dip in the amount of IT staff recruited," he says, "but at the same time technology has advanced quicker than ever before. As the markets improve, demand for IT professionals has significantly increased and there are too few people available in the industry with the relevant skills. Also the number of young people choosing to study computer science at A-level and degree has reduced." As for the primary IT skills shortages, Protherough doesn't hesitate in citing programming with a lack of candidates with .net, Java and SQL skills across the UK.
Katie Gallagher, business development director at Manchester Digital, an independent trade association for the digital sector in the North West of England, predictably takes a digital perspective.
"There has been an exponential increase in demand for developer and technical skills as everything becomes digitised," she says. "Unfortunately, this has coincided with a decline in the amount of students electing to study computer science over the last 10 years and now there is no proper computer science curriculum being taught in schools anyway." Gallagher believes this is beginning to change, but thinks it will be three to five years before any of the benefits are realised.
For Andy Wilton, CIO at Claranet, it's all a matter of staff not having the right skills. "IT staff have moved away from the nuts and bolts of IT towards data and information management," he suggests. "Tied to this is the issue of staff having skills in managing infrastructure, but not possessing the full range of skills required by businesses today, such as storage, computing, networks and virtualisation.
"In terms of areas of short supply, beyond infrastructure, Claranet has found that whatever skills are hot at any given time are going to be in short supply," adds Wilton. "Specialist consultancies tend to hoover up the available talent and hike up the rates. We found this recently when we had difficulty finding ServiceNow skills."
The skills shortage is naturally having an effect on business. Gallagher points out that over 32% of businesses within the Manchester Digital membership were forced to turn away work last year as they didn't have access to enough staff with the right skills to deliver it. "It is a very serious issue for digital businesses," she says, "and not just in the North West, but across the whole of the UK. Hence, we are seeing more and more of our businesses establishing overseas teams, quite often in Eastern European countries, so they can meet client demand."
So what should and are businesses doing to address this situation? Gallagher thinks it's an educational issue and organisations should invest in the future by knowing which schools and colleges their talent will be coming from, getting involved and making sure they are teaching courses that will skill the workforce of the future.
"'Beyond this, understand what digital disruption means for your business and spend time educating colleagues in other departments about what this looks like," she advises. "Get HR on board early so they can begin to understand what this means for the business and you can get a plan in place and decide which staff can be up-skilled and what are the new roles that will need to be created or recruited."
Spring Technology's Protherough's again stresses the importance of education. "CIOs need to invest in apprentices and IT graduate programmes to start building talent farms and to have clear development and succession plans," he says. "As leaders, they need to inspire the next generation, so must work with schools and colleges to help promote IT as career of choice with young people."
He also warns against losing what skilled staff you may already have by ensuring the workforce is truly engaged. According to a recent study by the IT recruitment company called Attracting future IT talent, 72% of IT workers feel underappreciated by the wider business. "This can lead to an increase in attrition, which is crippling to businesses looking to grow," says Protherough. "In a candidate-short market, CIOs need to be aware that they need to be able to offer more than just a competitive salary and location. Flexible working, training and development and use of new technologies are high on our candidates' tick list when looking for a new role."
As the economy slowly recovers and demand for IT increases, CIOs can only witness greater strains placed on their workforces, with salaries being pushed up and more recruiters targeting their staff. The good news is that it doesn't all come down to money when IT specialists decide where they want to work, says Claranet's Wilton. "Our research shows that giving people a level of autonomy, responsibility and a healthy working environment serves to drastically improve loyalty," he adds.
"However, the most prized asset we can offer our staff is training. If staff aren't learning new skills they will – and should – move on," Wilton warns. "The rate of change in the industry is such that IT skills have a half-life, so if staff aren't learning new skills, they are essentially going backwards. Remaining competitive and retaining the right skills in the business means that we have to constantly up-skill our staff." It's a policy that should be at the heart of every organisation.