IT skills shortage fuelled by lack of business investment

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You know, the times, they are a changing

A looming IT skill shortage may have finally roused policy makers in the UK and EU, but concerns that businesses may be affected sooner rather than later still prevail.

This week the EU made its own move to kick-start the development knowledge of IT skills, which it views as absolutely vital to global competitiveness.

A boost to e-skills is “crucial” the European Commission declared, not only to the 90 percent of jobs which will involve some level of ICT knowledge by 2015, but also to the in depth knowledge needed in elements of business.

In the UK the government has moved to promote IT creativity in the classroom, moving away from the ICT model which has prevailed in schools over the past years.

However lack of investment in the development of new highly skilled IT workers is a growing problem for business.  This is both due to the education system, derided by Google chief Eric Schmidt last year, and cuts a lack of development within businesses themselves due to a global recession.

Compuware’s European Mainframe Director Neil Richards says he is “not surprised” with the EC’s conclusions.

“I think this has probably been creeping up on us over the years,” he told us, “it has been becoming more and more of a problem.”

Part of this problem, he says, is that many IT departments of business have had to struggle through with major cuts to accessible funds.

“When I talk to customers there has been a trend to cut IT spend.”

“When they are forced to look at IT spend, they look to cut salaries, ten percent, twenty percent, some companies even more,” he says.

Crucially this means that with a cut in salaries and trends in offshoring in order to chase efficiencies, careers in IT have become decidedly less desirable, Richards says.

Those who have been working in the sector “are probably not encouraging their siblings to go and study IT in a university”, which contributes to a lack of skill base that the EU has recognised.

“I think it has an impact. When the younger generation are wondering what will stand them in good stead for a job when they come out of university, because IT has been hit heavily, some of these things might have diminished the interest of the younger generation.”

From a business perspective this can be dangerous, and further down the line the lack of investment is threatening to drive a shortage of adequately trained staff.

With many highly skilled workers involved in setting up IT systems approaching retiring age the level of knowledge required to replace them is a particular problem.

“When you have got a sixty five year old person with forty odd years of business experience retiring, how many people will it take to get those people up to speed with the same amount of knowledge, the same amount of productivity?  Its definitely not a one for one replacement.”

This means that the requirement for more graduates with relevant skills is even more vital in the coming years.

In the past business would have been looking at growing skills sets over five years or so, he says.  However cost cutting means that priorities swayed towards simply “keeping lights on” and “keeping systems going”.

This penny pinching, though perhaps necessary, could soon come back to haunt business however.

“You can cut cost and not impact your business in the short term, but its like a car – if you don’t take your car in and get it serviced it still works for the first year, for the second year.”

“But when it breaks down it will cost you a lot of money.”

And so with IT skills you can cut for the first year and second, Richards says, but if you don’t maintain your applications at some stage you are going to have to put more resources into it.”

“When that time comes, are the skills going to be there?”

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