The importance of effective IT skills training

Investment in IT education is needed to keep technology at the forefront of the UK economy, according to Richard Nott, website director at specialist job site CWJobs.

Computing degrees are depreciating in value, according to the findings of a recent survey by CWJobs.co.uk. Britain once led the way in terms of technological innovation, and we have a mass of tech-savvy teenagers, so where did it all go wrong?

In the early 1980s, British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair revolutionised the consumer technology industry with the launch of the ZX Spectrum – setting in motion an army of bedroom coders, who created their own games for the console. This was the birth of the UK computing industry and Britain was showing the way to the rest of the world.

Thirty years on, technology and society have become completely intertwined. Technology underpins everything we do, in work and play, and there continues to be high demand for gadgets such as iPads and games consoles, despite the state of the economy. What is more, the requirement for new technologies that promoise to make our lives easier is unlikely to falter, making the IT industry integral to the growth of the economy and, subsequently, a sound career choice.

Despite a healthy start, Britain’s influence in the computing and programming industry has declined since the days of Sir Clive and the bedroom programmers. Many ask whether or not the industry suffers from a skills shortage. Research from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation found the number of students taking IT at GCSE level dropping by almost 50% since 2006, for example.

The IT and telecoms industry currently contributes £81 billion to the economy each year, but could potentially contribute a lot more. A report from e-skills, the sector skills council for business and information technology, suggests that investment in the industry could boost the economy by an additional £50 billion over the next five to seven years.

A crisis in education

The basics of information and communications technology (ICT) are taught in schools, but this primarily involves learning how to use everyday computer programmes such as Word and Excel. Many pupils do not learn how to be creative with technology, or acquire programming skills such as Java and C#, until they choose to take an A-level in computing – and they may never get that far.

And, with the increase in tuition fees set to come into force for degree courses this September, there is growing concern that the UK’s place in the IT market will weaken further. Research recently conducted by CWJobs found that more than half of IT professionals would not do an IT-related degree today if they had to pay the increased fees.

Educating children on the basics of programming at a grass-roots level could give the IT industry a major boost in the long term. It could encourage more people into the industry and encourage children to get a head start from a young age.

But these young people need the support. The great majority (81%) of ICT teachers in the UK do not possess a relevant qualification in the subject, suggesting that teachers may not necessarily have the relevant skills to develop a curriculum to support a new generation of tech-savvy specialists.

Our findings would suggest that even degree-level education might be improved. When questioned on the value of an IT degree, 45% of IT professionals said they felt that even a degree in computing is no longer valuable for securing a career in IT and 71% stated that self-taught developers are just as skilled as those with formal training or education.

Brits going abroad

Two-thirds (64%) of respondents to the CWJobs survey expressed a concern that the negative impact of increased tuition fees may drive UK students abroad. Recent reports have suggested that the number of UK students applying to take the SATs – a test used by many US colleges to grant entry – has increased by more than one-third in the last two years as students consider alternative routes to qualifications. Research released in 2011 by Mintel established that only one student in four returns to their home country after completing their education, raising concerns that if students are forced to move abroad to study, the UK might permanently lose talent to overseas markets.

Time to take action

As technology advances, a natural increase in demand for IT candidates will follow. Greater support needs to be introduced at a grass-roots level to educate children, not just on the technicalities of computer science itself, but on the possibilities a career in IT could bring. Instead, the UK seems to have lost its excitement about technology, perhaps because it has become so engrained in society that we take it for granted. However, given the huge potential for consistent growth, which is a standout aspect of this industry, coupled with the current gloomy state of the domestic economy, addressing the strategic issues facing ICT education in the UK is essential.

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