Superior technical skills and business acumen are the critical ingredients for new IT graduates, says Kevin Streater.

Employers’ concerns over the business acumen of IT graduates have caused much debate but there is a second skills gap that may be holding back the UK’s ability to deliver creative IT systems for future business growth.

IT education programmes are not producing the specialist, higher-level technical skills industry needs. As a result, employers are sometimes left without the IT innovators able to drive beyond a helpdesk role and explore the application of IT to make improvements to processes, or encouraging development of new products and services.

The Open University is tackling both these concerns head on with our new undergraduate degrees in IT and computing, which have just been launched. These new programmes focus not only on employer concerns about business awareness but also on specific technical capabilities to produce graduates who can deliver value to employers from day one. Crucially, these degrees have been created with input from industry representatives and e-skills UK.

The next generation of IT graduates must have world-leading expertise as well as business awareness

The next generation of IT graduates must have world-leading expertise as well as business awarenessPhoto: Shutterstock

As well as encouraging more degree programmes that are relevant to business, e-skills UK has identified key technical skills employers feel are lacking. In a report last year, e-skills UK with the Recruitment & Employment Confederation found high-level ability in C#, JavaScript, .Net and SQL were in particularly short supply. They also identified systems developers, systems administration and senior test analysts as positions employers were struggling to fill.

What we are seeing is that while helpdesk and desktop support roles are regularly reported as in demand, there are also specific, higher-level technical skills that aren’t present in the existing graduate pool. The short supply of innovative technical talent has left UK businesses lacking the skills to innovate and drive themselves forward.

Loss of talented IT staff

As an example, a survey of 50 CIOs in financial services published in May found that almost 60 per cent had lost key IT innovators over the past three years. The report, carried out by management consultancy Xantus, suggested that without these talented people, organisations are likely to make more tactical, conservative investments, doing what is necessary in IT rather than driving forward and investing in new technology.

The next generation of IT graduates must deliver world-leading technical expertise as well as business awareness. It’s a lesson the Open University has taken on board in the development of its new IT undergraduate curriculum, which caters for both these key demands of the modern employer.

While the Open University’s new joint honours degree encourages students to combine their IT studies with an introduction to business skills, the new straight BSc Hons allows candidates to specialise in a particular area, developing skills such as software and website development or program design to a higher level than other graduates.

By combining this approach with a vendor certification pathway and new work-based learning modules, we are providing an education programme that guarantees employers sponsoring their IT staff and faster returns on investment, and delivers personnel able to drive innovation in the workplace.

IT graduates must compete in global context

The benefits of this new approach are made clearer when you look at IT in its global context. At a time when broad IT competence can be bought in from abroad very cheaply, it’s critical that UK IT graduates can compete.

So they have to be able to demonstrate superior technical skills to deliver new products and services that revolutionise operations, and the business awareness to make IT decisions that deliver long-term commercial benefits.

With these new degrees, the Open University has extended its foundation degree in this sector. It is at the forefront of a new approach to IT education that focuses on these two key concerns from employers and is giving students the skills and experience to make sure UK IT has both a commercially successful and innovative future.

Kevin Streater is executive director, employer engagement for the IT and telecoms industry at the Open University.