Is it still worth studying computer science in the UK?

Is there a need for an influx of new IT talent when computer science graduates in the UK already have the highest unemployment rate among university leavers?

There was much rejoicing recently when the UK government decided to tear up the stupefyingly dull IT curriculum that had turned a generation off of a career in computing.

But just what prospects are there for a computer science graduate today? Dig a bit deeper and it seems that IT graduates in the UK - particularly those trying to pursue roles in software development - are struggling to get onto the career ladder.

Holders of computer science degrees were the graduates who were most likely to be unemployed in both 2009 and 2010, according to figures from the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency. The figures, which measured unemployment rates among graduates six months after leaving university, showed the proportion of computer science graduates without work was about eight per cent higher than the national average in 2009 and five per cent higher than the national average for graduates in 2010.

One reason for computer science graduates struggling to find a role within their chosen career is that there are simply not enough entry-level roles within the UK, according to Richard Holway, chairman of analyst house TechMarketView. This lack of graduate positions stem from the longstanding practice of companies filling entry-level IT roles offshore, Holway, said.

"For the last 10 years the number of entry level jobs created in the UK have plummeted," he said.

In a bid to stay competitive the major western outsourcing companies have also created their own networks of offshore development centres.

But without these starter roles, Holway said, comp-sci grads find themselves unable to get a foothold in their chosen career and unable to progress to senior positions that require professional experience.

"Qualified network designers do not come fully formed out of the womb, you do have to give them their first jobs," he said.

Adam Thilthorpe, director of professionalism at the technology industry body BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT, acknowledged that the practice of offshoring junior tech roles had made it more difficult for IT graduates to gain experience early on in their career.

"That does put a particular pressure on people to be able to pick up those first two years-worth of experience," he said.

Thilthorpe said that people at the start of their IT careers could gain experience through graduate development schemes run by major tech firms operating in the UK, but admitted that these too are over-subscribed.

"There are still some excellent graduate schemes that exist in technical roles, but competition to get onto those grad schemes is quite fierce," he said.

However offshoring is not the sole cause of companies unwillingness to hire UK IT graduates: another major factor is UK businesses dissatisfaction with what computer science graduates are being taught, both in schools and university.

Last year employers told tech skills body e-Skills UK that IT graduates didn't have the mix of technical skills and business knowledge they are looking for. An e-skills UK report found this lack of the right skills had resulted in a steady drop-off in the proportion of IT professionals aged under 30 - falling from 33 per cent in 2001 to only 19 per cent in 2010 - as employers favoured experienced workers from other sectors over young recruits.

Holway said that Gove's technology teaching reform will need to extend beyond secondary education, the edge of its existing remit, and tackle university tuition if it is going to address employer's issues with the way IT is taught.

"Many employers believe that what people learn about IT at university and at school is basically useless," said Holway. "This is a very fast changing world, you can learn all sorts of things about programming mainframes and data manipulation, but nowadays the vast majority of skills that are required are in things like app development, network design, social media skills and how they operate in the cloud.

"They are not part of a computer science degree course."

However, there are some indications that the number of entry level roles for computer science and IT graduates are increasing. A recent study by High Fliers Research predicted that, despite a slump in graduate recruitment by IT and telecoms companies in 2008 and 2009, the IT and telecoms sector will see the fastest growth in numbers of entry-level positions between 2007 and 2012, with the number of posts expected to grow 45 per cent during the period.

And even if IT graduates don't find work within dedicated tech roles, Britain's workforce needs a sound grounding in IT, the BCS' Thilthorpe said, if UK businesses are to exploit the opportunities that technological innovation will bring.

"I think there is a need for technology graduates because of the importance of them to UK Plc. We are a relatively small island off the coast of Europe, we don't have natural resources or even a huge manufacturing base any more to generate wealth. What we do to maintain our position as the fifth largest economy in the world is about knowledge services and innovation, and that is underpinned by technology and IT. There isn't an sector in the UK who's success isn't based on its ability to innovate in the ICT space - from retail to financial services to the public sector - so we need the best and most talented people coming through and thinking this is a great area to work in because it's so diverse and dynamic."


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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