Offshoring has fuelled IT skills crisis, say UK firms

The practice of offshoring entry-level IT roles is leaving firms unable to find experienced staff to fill more senior positions, according to a forum of major UK businesses.

Outsourcing of entry-level IT jobs has left UK businesses struggling to find staff with sufficient experience to fill senior roles, according to IT professionals at some of the UK's largest firms.

The domestic talent pool has been drained by the practice of offshoring entry-level and junior IT roles to lower cost regions over the past decade, said John Harris, chairman of The Corporate IT Forum, which represents some of the largest business users of IT in the UK.

"We've damaged our own pipeline. If you're a school leaver and you're looking at IT jobs and what you see is all the jobs dribbling away offshore you're not going to be inspired," said Harris, who is also VP for global enterprise architecture at loyalty management specialist AIMIA.

"As a collective industry, we let it go too far. We put some things out there that we shouldn't have put out there and in some instances have done so in a very crude way. I've seen lots of examples where we've just picked up jobs and a process, which wasn't necessarily optimal or working well, and shifted it out and said 'Keep doing that the same way we always did and do it cheaper'.

"We all look dreadfully surprised when five years later we need to find an [enterprise] architect. Where do we grow architects from? We grow them from our analysts. Then we realise 'Ah, we don't have many of those any more because we shifted them out'."

Harris was commenting on the findings of a report for the forum which found that 59 per cent, of forum members have been unable to find people with the right technical or business skills for an IT role.

Offshoring was seen as the biggest barrier to nurturing the next generation of IT professionals by about about one quarter of forum members surveyed.

The hardest jobs to fill appear to be mid-level roles that demand specialists with several years experience. The top five skills that businesses are struggling to find are for enterprise architects, product specific roles, solutions architects, application development and security.

The difficulty in getting on the IT career ladder in the UK is backed up by the report's findings that while the number of computer science graduates has been falling those studying the subject still face above average unemployment rates.

Between 2003 and 2010 the proportion of students learning computer science at university in the UK fell by 27 per cent. Figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) last year showed that six months after leaving university 13.9 per cent of computer science graduates were unemployed, higher than the 8.6 per cent unemployment rate among graduates overall. Hesa found that of those computer science graduates in work, 47.3 per cent were employed as IT professionals.

Overall demand for qualified IT staff, while increasing, is still far short of pre-crash levels and far below that at the start of the last decade. The annual Technology Insights reports by IT skills body e-skills UK show there were about 116,000 advertised IT and telecoms vacancies during each quarter of 2011, far fewer than the close to 200,000 IT and telecoms posts advertised in the first quarter of 2008 and the 350,000 posts vacant in the second quarter of 2001.

"There is a chunk of work that has been pushed out and it's going to be very hard to pull it back," said Harris.

But while it would be difficult to bring entry-level positions already offshored back to the UK, there are alternatives to offshoring that businesses should consider, he said.

By offering IT apprenticeships to school and college leavers Harris believes companies could afford to keep certain entry-level IT roles onshore, while also providing essential training and experience to apprentices.

"We need to get smarter at growing talent in a way that hits a certain price point and doesn't make outsourcing appealing," he said.

"There are some jobs and roles that today by default would be outsourced. If you had an apprentice programme and decided we're going to invest a small amount in growing folks out of school so they learn all about the whole scope of IT you could bring some of that work back onshore."

Apart from providing more opportunities for IT workers to get a foothold in the industry, the forum is also calling for a change in how IT and computer science is taught at schools and by industry, to place a greater emphasis on how IT skills can be used by business. The government is currently reshaping the ICT curriculum in England and Wales.

Harris said it was important for businesses and government to realise that improving the domestic IT talent pool should be a priority.

"What I'd hate is to find in three years time that that number [of domestic IT jobs] has dropped again and the reason is it was too hard to find the skills we wanted and we've got folks with the wrong kind of degrees out of work and we're bringing in folks from elsewhere. That would be a fail," said Harris.


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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