As the number of IT vacancies tumble in the UK, efforts are under way to improve the job mobility of IT workers, says David Clarke.
E-skills, the government-licensed IT skills organisation, recently announced a 24 percent quarter-on-quarter reduction in the number of advertised IT job vacancies, which have dropped below 100,000.
Taking these findings at face value, panicked IT professionals may decide to "bed down" in their jobs and try to hibernate their way through the remainder of the recession. That response would be a mistake.
What the figures also reveal is a continuing mismatch of employers' needs and market capabilities. Systems development, network management, programming and systems design remain highly sought-after skills, and vacancies in these areas remain hard to fill. While the economic downturn will, of course, have an effect, many organisations need more and better IT to survive.
Yet those skills shortages are not an indication that IT staff will find work easily. The British Computer Society's (BCS) conversations with employers reveal a desperate need for deeper commercial and management competencies, which place IT professionals at the centre of business — and of public policy.
It is still too hard for employers to assess the depth and breadth of employees' skills, be they business or technical. It is still too tough for IT professionals to retrain, moving smoothly from one discipline or expertise to another, or rising into general management with credibility.
All these issues are serious problems with far-reaching consequences, both for the profession and for those who rely on it. Rather than retreating from that reality, it is critical that IT professionals — and those employing them — respond in ways that make sense for the longer term.
In a recent survey, BCS members highlighted a number of reasons why we, perhaps more than some other professions, may stand a better chance in the present climate. We are open-minded: 41 percent of members believe we are more open than other professions; change and meritocracy are more a part of our professional culture.
We are also optimistic about our potential: 70 percent of us believe IT can change the world for the better. Few, if any, professions can offer the chance to make such a broad contribution to society.
We are highly inventive: 58 percent of members agree that IT attracts clever, entrepreneurial people and 42 percent believe it is easy to start your own business in IT. We, above all professions, work in a globalised market: 78 percent of members see IT as a global career.
These characteristics speak of so much potential — as yet untapped.
So how do we unlock this potential? The answer to that is something the BCS has been contending with, promoting and acting on for some time, with successes on many fronts.
Recognition of qualifications, contributions to public policy and a more mature debate in the media are all signs of significant progress. What I find particularly encouraging at the moment is the change in climate for employers of IT professionals. Our work of engaging with and educating employers is helping them overcome some of the fundamental blocks to performance.
Starting with simple tools that address basic needs — such as how to evaluate organisational capability — we help employers join the wider vision of professionalism. They are then able to build a new professional culture, one where BCS members find their capability is valued and respected, while employers see significant business benefit.
There are other roadblocks, and it is a difficult time in many areas. Despite all this, we are seeing the profession grow in stature and breadth as a pillar supporting the information society. I am determined that BCS as the professional body for IT will continue to play its part, and I am joined in that determination by an ever-growing body of BCS members eager to play theirs.
David Clarke is chief executive of the BCS, the professional body for the UK's IT industry, representing over 65,000 IT professionals. Clarke took up his post at the BCS in May 2002 and has nearly 30 years' involvement with IT systems, first on the supply side with HP, DEC and Compaq, then as chief executive of the Virgin group of companies and Trinity Mirror.