Self-made crisis

More
than a quarter of employers in the IT industry think skills shortages are
destroying the health of the bottom line. They know that training is the
obvious answer, so why isn’t it happening? By Roisin Woolnough

IT
employers and employees tend to have one thing on their minds – skills.
Employers because there is invariably a short supply of the skills they need
and employees because they are always looking to acquire the skills of the
future in order to stay in the game.

Almost
every piece of research about IT professionals shows that skills and training
are their top career priorities.

An
increasing number are forking out substantial sums of hard-earned money to keep
up to date with emerging technologies, but, quite rightly, they want their
employers to be investing in their future as well.

“Training
is a major retention issue in the IT industry,” warns Simon Mingay, vice-president
and research director at IT consultancy Gartner Group. “If employers don’t
train people, they will lose them – that’s a dead cert.”

Yet,
a charge often levelled at employers is that they do not invest enough money in
IT training and hence are, to a certain extent, making the skills crisis even
more acute.

UK
training organisation, e-skills NTO, recently conducted research into the state
of the IT industry. It found that 25 per cent of respondents need to recruit
more staff, 19 per cent have suffered recruitment difficulties over the past
year, with 40 per cent of companies being unable to hire the technical
specialists they needed.

The
research revealed that this situation was having a negative impact on business
growth: 81 per cent of companies surveyed expressed concern about the shortage,
with 22 per cent of them claiming their business development activities have
been restricted due to a lack of skills and 21 per cent having lost orders as a
result.

Severe
impact

It
is easy to see that the skills shortage can have a severe impact on a company’s
bottom line, particularly as the skills in shortest supply are often the ones
that companies need in order to drive their business forward.

E-skills
NTO expects that the demand for ITers is only going to grow and that the
industry will need somewhere between 360,000 and 800,000 extra people in the
next three years.

Mingay
also predicts a worsening situation. “At Gartner, we reckon there is a 20 per
cent shortfall at the moment. This will probably rise to about 25 per cent over
the next three years. It’s a long-term problem.”

However,
Andrew Milroy, director of IT services research at International Data
Corporation, thinks the skills shortage is going to start levelling out.

“We
are predicting that the skills shortage will stabilise over the next few years.
It is higher than it was two years ago, but we have started to see the rate of
growth becoming lower.

“It
will still be high but we have started to see a lot of companies look at less
labour-intensive models of computing, such as outsourcing or using application
service providers.

According
to Milroy, the Government has also been influential in addressing the skills
problem by increasing the allocation of visas for foreign professionals who
want to work in the UK and encouraging organisations to increase their training
resources.

Whatever
happens, there is no doubt that people will still have problems finding the
skills they need. Rules of supply and demand inevitably mean that when a skill
is highly sought after, it is also in short supply because everyone is chasing
after the same people.

Shortages
are to be expected pretty much across the board – except for those Y2K
troubleshooters the Cobol programmers – but some skills will prove more elusive
than others.

Typically,
it is the newest, sexiest skills that every IT department wants, and rather
than going out into the market to find them, companies would be better off
training their existing staff.

Any
one of the skills associated with e-commerce is a key area. Networking skills
are in short supply. “In a study we did for Cisco, we found there was a
significant shortage of people in the networking area,” says Milroy. “Skills
like Cisco, 3comm, Nortel and Lucent.”

According
to Computer Weekly magazine’s SSP survey, the top application skills in demand
are C, C++, Java, Unix, Windows NT, Oracle, SQL, Visual Basic and HTML. Add
XML, Siebel and Peoplesoft to this list and it is easy to see why IT
departments are groaning.

Security
is becoming an ever more important concern and any related skills are much
sought after. “The market has moved on from design of web sites to trading
issues,” explains John O’Sullivan, skills consultant at e-skills NTO.

Proven
business experience

“This
means that security considerations are key,” adds O’Sullivan. “Also, there is a
lot of database activity and people with a foot in both worlds – front end and
back end – are in high demand.”

People
with proven business experience and project management skills are big news.

The
obvious choice for a project management position would appear to be a senior IT
professional, someone with years of experience and knowledge to call upon.

Yet,
this is a section of the IT workforce that is being sidelined and sometimes
discarded by companies.

The
popular misconception is that older ITers are both unwilling and unable to
learn new technologies, but for the majority of that generation, nothing could
be further from the truth.

Speak
to almost any ITer over the age of 40 and they will say they are eager to keep
their skills up to date.

It
is hardly as if they have to start at the beginning again when they learn a new
language because many of the concepts and rules remain the same. For example,
it is supposedly very easy for C programmers to pick up Java.

Moreover,
someone who has been in the industry for 20 years will have seen the same
problems time and time again, will know how to find a solution and has the
confidence to pass on that knowledge to younger colleagues.

Companies
should be harnessing the experience of this substantial part of the IT
workforce and providing training where necessary.

Sarah
Foxall, skills manager at Microsoft, says employers should take a strategic approach
to all training issues. “Develop and implement a skills strategy to support
your IT strategy or business plan, if you’re an IT company, planning ahead to
develop skills in time for when you need them.”

It
is the approach anyone who is responsible for IT should be taking – assessing
what skills the IT department needs and how to get them.

Proactive
approach

Companies
need to take a proactive approach, rather than a reactive one. They also need
to look at the long term, rather than only addressing short-term needs.

“Companies
need to have long-term training schemes,” says Mingay. “Some do it very well
and are very committed, but the majority want the quick fix. Most organisations
need to increase training by 50 to 100 per cent in order to resolve their own
skills crisis.”

Some
companies deliberately shy away from offering IT staff training in the fear
that it will make them more attractive to other companies and they will be
whisked off. But, seeing as training is such a top priority for ITers, they are
more likely to stay if training is taken seriously.

Budget
concerns are also another key deterrent, particularly when times are lean. “It
is one of the first things that gets chopped when there are budget pressures,”
says O’Sullivan. “And there are always budget pressures.”

Seeing
as IT is such a crucial element of business success, companies can be shooting
themselves in the foot by not equipping their staff with adequate training.
Money spent on training is usually money well spent because it helps a business
to grow, thus yielding more revenue.

According
to Andrew, the average company spends less than 1 per cent on IT training
specifically. “Although that is quite a lot for a multi-billion corporation,”
he adds.

Every
company should aim to provide between five and 10 day’s training for each
employee, as a minimum. There are so many different ways to train these days
that people do not necessarily need to absent themselves from the office for
days at a time.

Companies
and individuals can opt for the traditional classroom methods, or web-based
training, or a mix.

“Different
types of training suits different types of learner,” says Paul Butler, chief
executive officer at training organisation KnowledgePool.

“There
will always be a place for face-to-face tuition, as well as e-learning and the
more traditional distance learning.”

Web-based
learning can take the hassle out of training as participants can often to
choose to do it when it is most convenient for them and they won’t even have to
leave the office.

And
if it’s that easy, then there really is no excuse for anyone not to train.

Roisin
Woolnough is deputy editor of Computer Weekly Xtra

Plug
the gaps

Try
our five top tips on managing the IT skills crisis:


Develop a specific training strategy  which
supports the IT strategy


Consider up-skilling senior staff. You may find they have a lot to offer


Get into the habit of planning to meet long-term needs, not dealing with a
quick fix


Budget for 10 training days for each employee a year


Consider a training mix from classroom to e-learning and distance learning

Apprentices
are major tactic

Hewlett-Packard
launched a Modern Apprenticeship scheme in November 2000 with 22 new recruits.

It
has devised an MA programme to train 70 18- to 22-year-olds who are new to the
industry over the next three years.

Steve
Walker, enterprise support operations manager of the UK and Ireland, explains,
“This is one of our main tactics to address the skills crisis as we want to
bring new people into the industry.

“It’s
a mix of training – classroom-based training, virtual classrooms and on-line
training.

“It’s
about 45-50 per cent web-based at the moment, but we are looking to make it 75
per cent and to provide mentoring so that they can gain from other people’s knowledge.

“It’s
very hands-on as people acquire skills and ability to do a job by practising.”

Walker
also runs “knowledge forums” where people can log on with technical questions
or problems. The scheme is an investment of over a million pounds.

“About
2 per cent of our total revenue is spent on training and about six weeks a year
goes on training,” he says.

The
training department at Hewlett Packard has three separate areas – technical,
business and personal development.

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