CXO

How to solve the tech skills crisis? Make IT cool again

Demand for IT workers is high, but how does the industry shake off its uncool image and attract new recruits?

John Lewis CIO Paul Coby: The UK is in the grip of an IT skills crisis. Photo: John Lewis

The UK is in the grip of an IT skills crisis as the number of people choosing a career in computing continues to lag far behind demand from business.

This shortfall needs to be addressed, warned Paul Coby, chairman of the CIO board of the IT skills body eSkills UK and IT director at retailer John Lewis, speaking at the Digital London conference in London.

eSkills estimates the UK will need an additional 110,000 new IT workers to enter the workforce each year, and the number of people entering the profession is still below what is needed, he said

"I think we have a bit of a crisis. Demand for IT professionals is growing every quarter, so it's really important that we as a nation produce all sorts of IT professionals and skilled users," said Coby.

Overall the number of applicants to computing courses in the UK is only about one third of the new intake that the IT industry needs. And the disparity between supply and demand looks set to continue, with the proportion of new jobs in the IT sector growing nearly five times faster than the UK average.

Coby believes that many pupils are turned off IT between the ages of 11 and 16, thanks to a secondary school curriculum that teaches children general computing skills that many find boring.

"I asked my son 'Why aren't you doing an IT GCSE?' and he said 'It's because it's about spreadsheets isn't it?'," he said.

"We really need to address this issue because this is when our young people move away from technology."

In contrast to the UK, students from countries including India and China are embracing careers in technology Coby said, adding that while 44 per cent fewer UK nationals are applying to higher education computing courses than in 2001, applications from overseas students remains "very high".

"In Bangalore or Beijing technology is a really cool thing to do," he said: "We really need to get over why IT is cool. It is not a problem that people have in other parts of the world."

The government has acknowledged that IT teaching needs an overhaul, and has pledged to drop the primary and secondary school IT curriculum this September and leave it up to schools to decide how they teach IT.

But the lack of an IT curriculum will leave a vacuum that it is unclear that schools will be able to fill, even with the help of industry association that are drawing up guidelines for teaching IT and GCSE qualifications.

Coby said that the IT GCSE that is being developed by eSkills and its partners will focus on areas such as programming, games design and web and mobile app development.

He also stressed progress made through eSkills-backed schemes like ITMB course, which teaches university students the IT skills that businesses want, and the Computer Club for Girls, which is designed to address the shortfall in girls involved in IT. Only 18 per cent of IT professionals in the UK are women.

Large tech companies are also backing initiatives to get more people into the IT industry, with Cisco using the Digital London conference to pledge to build another 30 Networking Academies, which provide elearning courses in ICT and networking. Cisco's UK MD for London 2012 told the Digital London conference that 5,000 people will pass through the academies over the next five years.

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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