In-depth

Why we must develop home-grown IT skills

Promoting IT skills is essential to UK’s economic future, claims Neil Lafferty.

The UK economy could lose out on billions of pounds due to a lack of digital skills. Those are the stark conclusions of two recent reports which somehow manage to complement and contradict each other at the same time.

The first of these, produced by e-skills UK, the Sector Skills Council for business and information technology, suggests the UK digital sector will need nearly 300,000 new recruits by 2020 if it is to reach its full potential.

There are many young people who could succeed in an IT career who do not have the desire to go on to higher or further education.

Meanwhile, another study commissioned by O2 claims Britain needs 750,000 additional digitally skilled workers by 2017 if it is to maximise a 12bn economic opportunity'(the potential value of the sector according to the organisation Development Economics).

While the size and scope of the challenge may vary within these individual reports, I fully agree with the underlying point that we could forego a huge economic opportunity in the UK if we don't attract more talent into the IT profession.

As an IT recruitment professional, I am well aware of the number of opportunities for developers, analysts and programmers which are difficult to fill due to skills shortages. But how have we got to this position when we seemingly live in an information society where IT skills are highly valued?

One of the key issues has been the economic conditions of the past five years and the impact it has had on decision-making within many UK-based firms.  The uncertain climate we have experienced since 2008 has led many businesses to hold back on spending with an inevitable impact on the level of IT skills now available in the market as projects were either delayed or scrapped altogether. This dip seems to have also deterred some young people from choosing IT as a career as we are not currently seeing the same level of applicants from colleges and universities.

At present we are now sourcing many candidates for UK positions from other parts of the globe. Central Europe is currently providing a strong flow of well-educated and motivated people who are more than happy to pursue opportunities here.

These professionals from former Soviet and Eastern Bloc nations have both the appropriate IT and language skills to succeed here in Britain and they are making a huge contribution in filling the talent gap that currently exists. However, we cannot rely on this in the longer term. As the economies of these nations improve, many of these professionals will be persuaded to return home. We are already seeing this trend in Lithuania where our Central European operation is based. The Government in this Baltic nation is now waking up to its own skills shortage and working with the business community to attract indigenous talent back home.

We must therefore better develop home-grown IT skills, especially at the higher value end of the market, if we are to capitalise on the economic opportunity that the digital sector offers and avoid the potential consequences that are highlighted in these reports.

Business has to continue to play a major role here. There are great examples of UK companies such as Sky which are heavily involved in student programmes to promote fresh talent. But more can be done in this area, especially among the SMB business community. We need to see more companies getting directly involved with schools, colleges and universities to sponsor youth development programmes that promote talent into the IT profession.  

It is also equally important to recognise that IT skills can be found and developed outside the walls of universities and colleges. There are many young people with great potential to succeed in an IT career, especially within the likes of the digital sector, who do not have the prospect or desire to go on to higher or further education. More apprentice-style initiatives targeting these youths could be hugely beneficial.

The educators must also raise their game. We need schools to shout about the future opportunities within IT, especially in high growth areas like the digital and financial services sectors. We need universities and colleges to get more engaged with business, reaching out beyond just large companies and as mentioned above working with more SMBs within their local community.

Having seen firsthand the challenges of sourcing IT talent to match up with existing job opportunities here in the UK, I welcome the publication of these two recent reports. I am also hopeful and confident that for the sake of the UK's future prosperity they serve as a wake-up call rather than a foreshadowing to a lost opportunity. 

Neil Lafferty is group sales director at Bright Purple Resourcing.

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