Hopes that the technology sector will help drive an economic recovery with schemes like David Cameron’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ are fast looking naïve, with technology firms large and small telling CBR that they are facing a looming skills crisis.
Ed Airey, COBOL product marketing director at British technology firm Micro Focus, said, "The lack of available and properly skilled graduates with the needed business acumen and enterprise focus on vital programming languages is becoming an increasingly important issue." He noted that despite an older programming language like COBOL running 70 percent of the world’s businesses, it is rarely taught in UK universities because it is considered ‘old fashioned’.
Loughborough-based clean power systems firm Intelligent Energy employs 250 people in total, spread across the UK, US and India. Its CEO Dr. Henri Winand told us that the firm has a number of vacancies, but that, "There is a lack of applicants for some roles, especially those jobs which require more science and engineering backgrounds, or indeed, people with solid programme management skills."
Such comments are backed up by research published today by IT recruitment firm Modis International. Its survey of 250 IT decision-makers in the UK found that 27 percent are struggling to source quality candidates, rising to 44 percent in larger firms. The survey found that over one third of companies are struggling to implement their own IT strategies because they haven’t got the right skills in-house; 23 percent plan to turn to temporary specialist contractors to plug the gap.
"The IT industry is in danger of a skills crisis," said Jim Albert, Modis managing director.
Andrew Pearce is CEO and co-founder of Powwownow, a Richmond-based conference call company that was featured in the Sunday Times Tech Track 100 league table of private technology firms. "We are seeing no lack of applicants for our technical roles, in fact on the contrary we’re often inundated," he told us. "The problem lies in the fact that most of those applicants are not suitable, certainly for the more senior positions."
"There is a saturated graduate market but I think that, in the UK at least, there is a distinct lack of senior skilled developers and programmers," Pearce added. "In part I think this is due to the fact jobs within this sphere are still not deemed to be noteworthy, or at least not in the same way doctors, lawyers, and academics continue to be."
Michael Stirrup, finance and HR director at IT and business consultancy Waterstons, said: "There are a lot of applicants for our roles, but many are nowhere near the quality we are looking for. External people aren’t matching up to the values, technical skills, leadership skills, experience etc displayed by our current staff, yet the wages they are demanding to move from their current positions are much higher than their true market value. It is an employee’s market at the moment."
Some graduates need to ensure they are regularly updating their own skills, according to Julian Tomison, VP of service lines at IT services and consultancy firm Avanade UK. "We are not seeing a lack of applicants, but what we are seeing amongst applicants is a lack of required skills," Tomison said. "Nowadays technical skills can quickly become obsolete, so applicants need to keep up to date and invest in regular training to make sure their skills set is relevant."
Back to the drawing board?
So what do the universities make of all this? Are they to blame for failing to deliver graduates with the right skills businesses such as these need? Alex Elkins is professional liaison unit manager at City University London. "In the current job market, there is clearly a need for universities to produce work-ready IT graduates, but this doesn’t mean that we should become training agencies churning out programmers," Elkins said.
"Despite unemployment figures, IT students are still selective about graduate roles," Elkin continued. "At a placement level, larger companies with a strong brand are still attractive and they usually offer of a structured programme and good salary in a well-defined role. But the growth of UK start-ups and the buzz around ‘Silicon Roundabout’ does lure some graduates away from more traditional opportunities."
But Ian Manocha, managing director UK and Ireland at business intelligence firm SAS, argues that the onus is on universities to provide courses that are, as he puts it, "fit for purpose".
"Working with businesses and government to base syllabuses around the applications and software used in real-life scenarios will give students a head start when it comes to gaining employment in an information age of open data," Manocha told us. "Equally, the onus should also be on universities to provide courses that are fit for purpose; making sure their courses are aligned to the needs of the marketplace. The future economy should thrive with innovation, productivity and public growth but this will not come to fruition unless there are people ready, willing and able to do the job."
Glimmer of hope
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. London-based Metaswitch Networks told us it is taking on over 50 graduates this year in a range of positions and subsidised internship schemes, and that it will "always make room for talent". Technology ‘value added reseller’ Trustmarque said it has hired 59 new staff since January, ten of them to its graduate trainee scheme, and that graduate skills are well aligned with what they’re looking for. It was the same story at Fujitsu UK & Ireland, which told us that by targeting specific courses during the recruitment process it finds skills well aligned.
But others tell a story of graduates with misaligned or lacking skills, or even lacking in an enthusiasm for positions in the technology industry. Backup Technology’s CEO Simon Chappell told CBR it has open positions for graduates but at one university only five people bothered to turn up to their careers presentation. "Surprising, given job market conditions and the numbers of unemployed graduates and young people," he noted.
SAP, Europe’s largest enterprise software company, has said that it’s seeking graduate salespeople in the UK that it will train up on a starting salary of £35,000, but that hardly anyone is applying. Graduates don’t even require IT skills, but still there are few applicatnts for its graduate training scheme.
The Government has launched various apprenticeship programmes and growth and innovation schemes like ‘Silicon Roundabout’, and it’s offered some tax breaks to tech entrepreneurs and investors. Yet it seems from the majority of technology firms we spoke to, these initiatives are not yet paying off in terms of attracting the right kind of candidates into the technology industry.
Micro Focus’ Ed Airey believes that it is the businesses themselves that need to pull out all the stops. "For years, businesses have been lobbying the Government to encourage young people to pursue careers in IT," he said. "Now it has actually responded with the introduction of various schemes, it’s time for businesses to act and deliver on their part of the bargain." Only this, he said, will, "Resolve the long term skills gap in the future."
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