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Human Resources

Ben Cranham (UK) - Skills Gap? Why Don't We Focus on Skills Development Instead?

The IT industry has been complaining about a skills gap in the industry for a very long time. Frustrated by an education system that pushes students towards "softer" humanities and arts subjects over science technology engineering and maths (STEM) degrees, the industry has bemoaned a lack of skilled graduates. But, surprisingly, figures from the tail end of last year show that statistics, IT and computer science graduates are more likely to be unemployed six months after they graduate than graduates in any other subject. This is not a new phenomenon. So if that is the case, how can the UK IT industry have a skills gap and, if it does, how can we improve things?

The reasons the IT sector might lack skilled, experienced and qualified individuals are varied, and only one of these is the education system. More likely, it is a combination of a training gap or skills misalignment and a tough job market in which employers struggle to meet the salary expectations of the best trained technology talent.

In the last decade, the UK IT industry benefited hugely from a mass immigration of skilled and hardworking IT talent from new EU countries, attracted by the UK's higher wages, which meant that employers could hire relatively senior staff at a low cost. Unfortunately for the industry, as these workers got used to the cost of living in the UK and their salary requirements and expectations rose accordingly, the supply of lower cost talent dried up. By focussing so narrowly on outsourcing and offshoring first level IT support and application development, organisations singularly failed to develop the next generation of home-grown IT specialists.

The standard complaint that ICT lessons over the past 15 years merely taught students basic office skills doesn't hold water. Imposing control over the national curriculum about what is taught is unlikely to fix all of the industry's issues. Working in IT is not just about technical skills, it is about people skills and business acumen; lessons that coding, for example, very rarely impart.

Recent developments to solve the 'skills gap' include increased government funding for higher apprenticeships, offering vocational training in skilled industries. This gives school-leavers the chance to learn while applying that knowledge in a business environment, meaning that once complete, individuals will have both the technical and business skills required. As university fees continue to increase, offering work-based alternatives is something which should receive even more focus and investment.

In addition, there are a number of companies taking positive steps to help develop a skilled IT workforce for the future. For example, some organisations encourage employees to visit local colleges to provide the commercial context for technical skills students are developing in the classroom.

The ability to think logically and methodically has to be taught from an early stage, outside of technology focussed lessons. It is also not about using technology for the sake of it. Headline grabbing high-tech whiteboards and iPads in schools do not create technology whizz-kids with a knack for business; it is the on-going training and development that counts.

It's also an unrealistic expectation that a graduate should come out of university fully-rounded and trained in the exact skills needed for their first role, not least because every organisation has different needs. Instead, businesses should invest in a ‘home-grown timber' policy, taking care in selecting graduates and interns that are the right cultural fit and have the right soft skills to build technology and business skills around it.

Things move fast in the technology sector and some skills can become outdated, which makes a life-long learning and development programme so important. This is something we really value at Trustmarque to keep staff happy, loyal and incentivised.

 

By Ben Cranham, Head of Corporate Accounts, Trustmarque

 

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