Can IT training keep pace with emerging IT skills shortage?

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Technology is impacting every element of daily life, but this fast-paced expansion means enterprises are struggling to find the IT staff they need for their business.

It’s important to understand how big this problem is:

·        The EU Commission warns Europe will need an additional 900,000 IT professionals by 2020.

·        The CBI in the UK warns such skills shortages could damage future prospects.

·        Over one million digital technology roles were advertised across the UK last year alone, according to Tech City's 2015 Tech Nation report.

As technology becomes pervasive the ways in which it can be applied are extended and the skills required to enable the digital opportunity themselves evolve.

Can’t get the staff

Claranet says concern at the lack of skilled staff is “rife” across Europe, where 21 percent of European businesses see skills shortages as one of their biggest IT challenges. That’s great for skilled staff as it drives salaries high and enables employees to pick and choose their next position.

Max Conze, chief executive of Dyson recently said, “Our technology and ambition continually races ahead of what we are able to recruit. Britain is short on engineers and it will need up to 200,000 more.”

It’s not just an organizational challenge, but an economic one.  A recent survey from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland and law firm DLA Piper, found that UK finance directors were more concerned about the skills shortage than they were about a referendum on EU membership.

Government

While it’s certain that apprenticeships, regulation and education policy can play a part in future skills provision, such strategic solutions take time to come into effect. And by the time they do, the skills tomorrow’s IT may need may not be the same as those required today – technology is evolving faster than technology education can.

This poses a problem across the skills and training ecosystem – it’s very difficult to plan ahead without a crystal ball to see the future. “In 2012, our most popular courses were dominated by ASP.net - nowadays it's Angular JS and C#,” says Julian Wragg, EMEA director for online learning company, Pluralsight.

Andy Wilton, Claranet’s Group CIO, said: “It’s clear that the labour market is in flux and, in truth, it’s difficult to know with certainty what skills will be needed in five years’ time or where those skilled professionals will be....”

International

In the short term, recruitment is becoming an international affair:  outsourcing, internationalization and recruitment of foreign nationals all have a part to play.

Larger international technology firms such as Microsoft, Apple, Google and others are attempting to navigate the skills crisis by opening up international centers and launching training and recruitment schemes designed to build the next generation of engineers, such as Ireland’s Microsoft-supported Youth2Work initiative.

Many major enterprises including key figures across the City of London are attempting to persuade governments to relax the rules on employing refugees and foreign nationals in possession of in-demand skills that could benefit local business.

The shortage is also driving growth in the outsourcing industry. Countries such as Belarus that have succeeded in developing IT skills are seeing direct benefits.  “A strong education system and cost-competitive salaries, together with a reasonably strong workforce, have enabled Belarus to develop a mature IT outsourcing industry, supporting the country as an alternative destination for offshore activities, especially software development,” notes Gartner.

Flexibility

No surprise within the challenging staffing environment that training and retention are more important than ever. Chris Hickey, CEO of Robert Walters UK said: “The shortage is forcing employers to nurture the talent they have, and many are willing to fight hard to keep important individuals. Employers must react to what employees want and for many this will mean improved work-life balance, career progression and pay.”

Foote Partners recommends enterprise adopt a “People Architecture” approach, with IT workers encouraged and trained to be flexible to changing market needs.

Online courses and MOOCs such as Udacity may help upskill existing staff, enabling such flexibility.

Udacity is partnering with technology firms to deliver accredited online courses geared to teach students in-demand skills. This seems a likely path for some enterprises, with 93% of companies already using online learning courses of some description.

While technology is disrupting every industry, the shortage of skilled staff capable of supporting this disruption is generating its own tidal wave of change. Not only are skills a premium, but training in response to market needs looks increasingly tempting to employees eager to advance their position and earn more cash.

Might this change the entire structure of work? While not going so far as to claim that, Foote Partners point out: “For many employers this can only be achieved with a dramatic transformation of the IT workforce to a more appropriately skilled group of professionals who are capable of a level of agility, flexibility and aptitude not commonly associated with their predecessors.”

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men’s interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.