Image is key to IT skills crisis

The
perception of IT as boring and nerdy is threatening to bring about a shortfall
of qualified people. Ben Willmott looks at how the IT giants are tackling this

A
nationwide initiative has been launched to stave off the IT skills shortage
that threatens to undermine the UK’s economy.

The
e-skills Employers’ Charter has been formed by 12 major IT employers in
response to predictions that a million extra IT professionals will have to be
recruited in the next five years to prevent the skills shortfall turning into a
crisis.

IBM,
Microsoft, EDS, Intel, Ericsson, Nortel and ARM are among the signatories to
the charter after research by the e-skills National Training Organisation
showed that the skills shortage can be tackled by improving the image of IT and
spreading the recruitment net.

The
study shows that IT is viewed as an almost exclusively male-dominated
environment with poorer opportunities and rewards for women. Only five per cent
of young women consider entering the IT industry, making it one of the least
popular career choices for females. The report blames a lack of knowledge about
the industry, a lack of interest and a perception that IT jobs are boring.

Anne
Cantelo, project manager for the e-skills NTO, thinks an image overhaul is long
overdue. She said, “We’ve found a significant gap between how people view
technology, particularly mobile phones and the Internet, and how they view
careers in IT. Technology is viewed as cutting edge and future-looking but
computers are seen as boring and the term ‘IT’ is only associated with
computers.

“People
who work in IT are seen as computer nerds who have no other interests and no
interpersonal skills. There are a number of reasons why this image has been
formed and e-skills employers now recognise that they need to take action to
change it.”

For
those working in the IT industry the e-skills Employers’ Charter is seen as a
vital first step towards solving the skills crisis.

Paul
Garvey, recruitment manager for Vistorm, said, “The charter galvanises diverse
organisations, several of which are in mutually competitive markets, into
specific and targeted action. The emphasis is on economic and knowledge growth
which will benefit us all in the UK.

“It
also provides opportunity for many diverse groups of people which,
historically, are not positively included. Work experience, spreading the
message to women and younger and older people alike, is a mission that will
surely gather momentum, enabled by the Web – the heart of technology – which we
are looking to promote.

“The
sector does, in fact, have an extremely strong image in the younger
professional bracket. It is considered dynamic, fast-moving and the place to be
– which it clearly is. But older staff may be intimidated by this and feel that
they simply cannot catch up, or that the industry is moving so fast that they
cannot ‘plant their flag’ in an area where their skills are most appropriate.

“This
can be a similar experience for women returning to work after having a family,
or for those who are unable to be as mobile in the job as some of the
professional services-based organisations require.”

The
e-skills NTOs’ research reveals that 43 per cent of firms feel their IT
workforce is less than 100 per cent proficient. Sixty-three per cent of
respondents blame this on a lack of technical skills, and of these 33 per cent
feel the proficiency failings are aggravated by inadequate training.

Problems
resulting from these shortcomings highlighted by the survey include delays in
developing new products and difficulties in meeting company objectives. More
than 30 per cent of companies said they suffered from higher operational costs
as a result, 14 per cent had lost orders and 13 per cent had to withdraw
products and services from the market.

Garvey
believes the Employers’ Charter will be vital as demand for IT professionals
continued to grow.

“Whatever
the actual statistics are regarding the level of skills shortages – and they do
conflict – most organisations engaged in IT are simply finding it extremely
difficult to locate and attract the right level of resource,” he said.

“Vistorm
is also in a highly competitive skills market – the provision of managed
Internet services, particularly managed Internet security. We have addressed
this by introducing fast-track systems to identify the core people or cultural
competencies we would like to attract and then offer candidates the chance to
enhance their skills by fast-track training. Similarly, we have approached the
Graduate Gateway system to attract and train graduates who are looking for an
opportunity to begin a career in IT and receive accredited training.”

Kevin
Curran, chief executive officer of TNL, said it is important that the charter
promotes IT careers through schools.

He
said, “If we and companies like us are to reach our potential we have to
address this problem immediately. We must work with NTOs and others in the
industry to present a positive image of our sector. By working closely with
educational establishments to ensure that IT plays a key role in future
curricula we can begin to change people’s perceptions and raise awareness.”

“Through
work placements we can give people first-hand experience of what it is like to
work in this industry and show the number of opportunities available in IT.”

The
Government is pledging to support the charter. Patricia Hewitt, the minister
for e-commerce, said, “We have already announced major commitments through the
White Paper, Opportunity for All in a World of Change, designed to increase the
number of specialist IT workers and we look forward to working with businesses
to drive forward the initiatives under the Employers’ Charter.”

The
e-skills Employers’ Charter


Consider whether it is possible to standardise job titles across the UK


Look at ways to help schools to inspire young children in IT


Improve the way jobs are advertised through better wording or placement to
attract a wider cross-section of applicants


Make better use of the media to promote the importance and possibilities of the
IT industry


Learn from personnel policies of firms, which have a good record of recruiting
and retaining women

The
e-skills Employers’ Charter is reproduced in full here

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