Is the UK really short of IT skills?

View From The Trenches: In the first of a new series, ZDNet UK asks a panel of industry experts their thoughts on a key issue - this week IT skills

Last month telecoms giant BT blamed a lack of local IT skills on its decision to outsource its IT development work to India . The company's chief procurement officer Meryl Bushell said the company has been unable to find sufficient numbers of qualified staff in the UK. "India gives us access to quality in terms of skills, experience and expertise. But it is all about the volume. All the skills we need over there we can get over here, but it is whether we can get them at the right scale," she said

But some industry analysts claim that there are more than enough local skills and that BT's real motivation was to cut costs by using cheaper Indian labour. "I would be very surprised if BT can get a higher quality in terms of skills abroad. Any company going offshore is looking to save costs as an initial premise. For BT the driver would certainly be cost," says Peter Ryan, offshoring analyst from analyst Datamonitor.

However, not all analysts agree with Ryan's view. A study from analyst IDC, released in October, claimed the UK could face a shortage of 40,000 IT networking specialists by 2008. And the UK is not alone, in a third of the 31 countries surveyed, demand for general skills could outstrip supply by more than 20 percent in 2008.

The kind of extreme shortage of IT staff predicted by IDC makes worrying reading but there is always another contradictory study it seems. A report, released in September, claimed that demand for IT staff in the UK fell for the first time in 18 months as companies cut back on IT spend. Job ads for IT staff fell by 5 percent during the first quarter of 2005 and fewer employers reported having IT vacancies or plans to take on staff during the next six months according to the according to the report from Sector Skills Council for technology e-Skills UK.

However despite this recent dip, according to e-skills UK, there has been a revival in the IT job market that has seen five quarters of consecutive growth in demand for staff. The group claims that currently the technology industry is enjoying the return of a buyers' market with employers having little difficulty retaining and recruiting IT staff.

So where does the truth lie? With the jury apparently out on the current state of UK IT skills, ZDNet UK turned the question over to selection of IT managers to find out if their experiences in the field tally with the analysts' views.

Denise Plumpton, IT director at the Highways Agency
Plumpton says that her company has found it difficult to recruit development staff — particularly with .NET and Java programming experience. She points to some fundamental problems with the way companies value training and promotion as partly responsible for the lack of some IT skills. The lack of a clear career path combined with under investment in training was exacerbating the problem. "People are struggling to think where their careers lie; most have to join an outsourcing company. Companies are not providing the opportunities for training like they used to," she says.

Programming languages and developer skills were not the only qualifications in short supply, according to Plumpton. "There is also a chasm in IT skills for good project managers and junior services, most companies have senior full-time staff which leaves a career gap for trainees and college leavers. They have taken the bottom few rungs of the IT career ladder and put them in India," she says..

John Colley, chairman of the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISC)
New regulations such as Sarbanes Oxley and more sophisticated IT security attacks mean that finding enough staff qualified in the right areas has become an arduous task, according to Colley. "There are only a certain number of people in IT but demand for various skills is rising at a faster rate. Cyberthreats are also becoming much more hostile, so companies need staff who are just as sophisticated as the hackers," he says.

Zoe Turnbull IT director at Shepherd Construction
The trend to outsource IT skills means that businesses are lacking IT specialists with an in-depth understanding of how businesses works says Turnbull. She believes that knowing and understanding how a business works is critical to providing effective IT support — preferring to train staff in-house rather than outsource. "We don't currently outsource anything except hardware and maintenance and I actually feel that company knowledge is as important to our support environment as anything else so I am unlikely to consider it," she says. "When you are dealing with users it is important to understand their job role and whether there are any pressure points such as end of the month accounts that escalate priority. I still think that training is the key to staff retention."

Dean Taylor, head of The Open University's virtual learning environment (VLE)
Staff at the UK's biggest University are always trained in-house and the organisation has little need for outsourcing. "When we recruit staff we provide a lot of our own training, normally we don't have too much of a problem in finding staff with the right skills," says Taylor.


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