Lack of youngsters with computer skills entering IT still a problem

Yet again there are cries about the lack of youngsters with computer skills and qualifications entering IT. Expect the same old remedies and outcomes rather than any fresh thinking.

Like many parents of 15-year-olds, I have been perusing my son’s predicted grades for next year’s GCSEs. Propping up the league table of subjects is Information and Communication Technology (ICT), where he is predicted to score a grade D – in real terms a fail.

“I don’t care,” he told me. “ICT is so boring. Nobody likes it – apart from the classroom boffin. It sends me to sleep.” All of which is probably true.

I blame Tony Blair. He was one of the driving forces behind making ICT compulsory in schools, giving it a higher status than languages, history and geography. He thought a nation awash with ICT skills would more likely be an economic powerhouse than one where only geeks acquired them.

However, more than 10 years after children were forced to study ICT, numbers taking the subject at A and degree level have shown all the soaring quality of a lead balloon. Just 5,610 took A-level computing this year compared with 6,233 in 2006, a 10% fall. The drop in those taking ICT at A-level was 6%, from 14,208 in 2006 to 13,360. It doesn’t get any better in higher education, with a steep drop in graduates from IT-related courses by 2009.

Given that there’s usually no shortage of relatively well-paid jobs in IT, it’s little short of astonishing that ICT and computing as A-level and degree level subjects are less popular than Heather McCartney in the Cavern club.

As an ex-IT journalist, I can tell you that this state of affairs is nothing new  there has always been an IT skills shortage and occasionally an IT skills crisis. An old remedy has been to try and tempt more women to enter the IT workforce – for example, through the efforts of the British Computer Society’s Women in IT initiative.

The good news is there are more women in IT than ever the bad news is they form a lower percentage of the workforce. According to Microsoft, 16% of the one million or so UK IT workforce is female, compared with 25% in the mid-1990s, when IT toilers numbered half a million.

Microsoft – hardly renowned for high-profile female employees – has thrown its lot behind the Revitalise IT programme. This is an initiative by IT skills council e-skills UK aimed at “transforming the attitudes of young people to IT-related education and careers”. Microsoft is helping this bandwagon roll by getting girls to – you’ve guessed it – organise a fashion show online and use computers to create posters and plan events.

“IT workers have an image of being white, male and geeky,” said Microsoft head of skills and economic affairs Stephen Uden. “We need to change this image.”

School pupils are saturated with IT already, have a pretty good idea what it’s all about and that’s why most don’t want to work in it. It would make more sense to abandon compulsory ICT as a GCSE subject, offer IT apprenticeships to 16-year-olds, and compel employers to stop insisting upon work experience as a prerequisite for a job in IT. Don’t hold your breath though – outbreaks of common sense in this area are as rare as women in IT.

One lump or two?

If your boss offers you a lump of sugar and a bag of oats as a bonus it could be that they have been doing a spot of horse whispering. Northampton firm Horses for Courses is offering courses in horse whispering, which it claims can boost managerial skills, especially communicating with staff.

Delegates walk up to a horse, make eye contact, have a quiet word, such as: “Who do you fancy in the 3.30 at Newmarket?”, and see how they respond. It’s all about eye contact and body language, apparently.

Company director Lisa Brice says: “If you can lead a horse you can master the most challenging of business situations.”

And, you know, she’s probably right.

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