Microsoft warns of 'acute' UK skills shortage

Microsoft warns of 'acute' UK skills shortage

Summary: The UK is facing a 100,000-plus shortfall in IT skills, says a new report, but others claim that talk of "gloom and doom" is not the answer

TOPICS: Networking

A new report, commissioned by Microsoft and published on Wednesday, has warned that the UK faces a major shortfall in programming skills.

Others, though, believe that a lack of information and relevant statistics makes it impossible to quantify any shortfall and instead point to industry successes.

The report, Developing the Future, examines the UK software development industry and reaches some disturbing conclusions. One is that, since demand for IT skills peaked in 2000 at the time of the Millennium Bug problem, UK applicants for degree courses in computer science, engineering and information systems and software engineering have declined to pre-1996 levels.

"The UK is facing an acute and growing shortage of high-end software skill," said Matthew Bishop, senior director of Microsoft's Development Platform Group.

Bishop argued that the problem is one of education. "With the same passion that young people enjoy the music players and computer games which the industry develops, they need to realise that their own future lies in creating the software and the applications that enable those experiences."

But other experts who attended a press conference for the launch of the report were more optimistic about the situation, although they agreed that the UK is facing a challenging time.

IT professionals are "seeing and hearing constant talk in the press of jobs going to India", said Elizabeth Sparrow, chair of the working party on offshore outsourcing at the British Computer Society, which also sponsored the report.

"It is a really global phenomenon," she said. "It is not just that jobs are being lost in the UK — jobs are being lost in many countries, France, Germany and the USA. Even Japan, which has lost huge numbers, far more than we have."

And far from being a failure in IT, Sparrow said, the UK is really extremely successful.

"We need to be really aware of where we are really good," Sparrow said.  "Look at our success in export. In terms of computer and IT services, who has the best trade surplus in the world? India is the leader, as you would expect and Ireland is the next but who lies third — the UK. It's not Germany, which has a deficit....There are a lot of good things going on, which, frankly, get lost."

The problem is partly image, said Sparrow. "The image of IT is about the geek and the nerd. The people who want to work in IT, I am assured, are people who want to be left alone, in a closed room, and work on a PC all day. But that is not what IT needs."

There was a requirement for excellence, Sparrow said, but only a limited need for the very best in many IT skills.

"Yes, we need some really, really expert nerds, the ones who are on top of their profession. But for the bulk we need people with a much broader range of skills. That is not well understood and is not being put across to people in schools today."

Edward Truch of the University of Lancaster, which produced much of the report, agreed that IT's image did not help in attracting people to the professions. "We are all used to reading the gloom and doom," he said. "There is good news but it is very much under the lid and does not appear in the headlines."

What is needed, Truch said, is recognition of the "pockets of excellence" that exist in the UK, which are "very important and much larger than we thought".

It was vital to "find the right actions to sustain excellence in the future," said Truch, who highlighted the lack of information about the real success of IT in the UK. He pointed out the errors made by the Office of National Statistics which in February raised its estimation of the value of the IT industry from £8bn to £21bn.

"One of the things that struck us [when compiling the report] was the lack of a cohesive picture out there," said Truch. "There were a lot of snippets of information and a lot of knowledge gaps. That is a challenge."

Topic: Networking


Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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  • Having worked in UK electronics, telecommunications and software engineering for over 27 years, I personally would not recommend any British youngster to pursue an engineering career in the UK. After a lot of tough work to qualify with an engineering degree, my experience has been one of low salaries, serial redundancy due to incompetent management, outsourcing of my job to cheaper Asian peers, and finally in my late 40s prolonged unemployment, as it appears that employers consider I am already past my 'use by' date. I want to work, have plenty of skills, qualifications and training, but nobody wants to know. There are plenty of others like me too, so where's the 'shortage'? If my experience is anything to go by, it is the employers themselves who have most responsibility for the UK 'engineering skills shortage'. They should stop their perennial whining and put their own house in order first. Anyone considering an engineering career in the UK, my advice is - DON'T!!!
  • Is there an apparent shortage of any *particular* IT skills, seeing as this study was sponsored by Microsoft? I can't help but wonder if perhaps they didn't look at the whole picture, but only concerned themselves with proprietary MS technologies.

    Naa, surely not... ;-).
  • The problem is not a shortage of skilled people It is more a shortage of companies willing to employ people of, shall we say more mature years.
    Employers forget these people have experienced a great number of changes within the industry and had adapted.
    Now many have moved to other industries out of necessity (to pay for food and shelter mostly).
    We need a change in attitude rather than law to sort this one out.

    a PS to that

    When I was working as a contractor a few years ago I was once told by an agency that they could get 5 Indians on a plane with work permits for same money I was earning per hour on my contract.
  • The software industry is going through the same cycle as manufacturing did from the start of the industrial revolution.

    The jobs and factories began in the UK, then jobs and factories moved to cheaper locations. When factories became smarter the decision where to locate factories was based less on costs.

    Improving productivity of developers requires new tools and approaches. One that improves output from programmers and ideally creates more programmers from people without coding skills.

    Hence a return of 4GL's that adopt a Model Driven Architecture is the way forward. We have proven productivity gains of 3:1 (3 traditional coders to one using a smart tool). We have also proven non-developers creating applications.

    The real benefit is with productivity you can align people with the business onshore, something that is proving to be an issue with offshore outsource contracts even with local staff feeding offshore developers.

    edge IPK have led the "Zero-code" approach, and now this message being adopted by Microsoft and other large software vendors. Real steps are being made towards "End user development".
  • Salaries of IT folks in India has also been increasing at an annual rate of 30% or more hence outsourcing is not a panacea, and a cheap one at that, as once touted by the wise. Infact there is a shortage of trained folks with reasonale coginitive abiliteis all over the globe. How about increaisng salaries here instead of viewing IT as an overhead and a downsizable appendage to the business as a whole.
  • Salaries of IT folks in India has also been increasing at an annual rate of 30% or more hence outsourcing is not a panacea, and a cheap one at that, as once touted by the wise. Infact there is a shortage of trained folks with reasonale coginitive abiliteis all over the globe. How about increaisng salaries here instead of viewing IT as an overhead and a downsizable appendage to the business as a whole.
  • I wonder if the issue is more to do with the way folks are recruited. In the proverbial "Good Old Days" you went to a recuitment agent, who interviewed you and worked out who you were and what it was you were good at. It was actually quite a skill. (S)he then went out on your behalf and tracked down jobs that fitted. To do this, the agent had to actually understand the field they were recruiting for.

    Now it is completely inverted. The employers go to the agent who bids the lowest. They then trawl up a pile of random CVs and do a text pattern match on the trawl. The ones that look to have the same characters in the same order get sent on. They need have no clue about the fields for which they recruit. In fact the less they know, the cheaper they are and the more likely they are to get the gig.

    The new breed have no way of crossmatching between comparable skills. No way of spotting that someone has a huge field of expertise and many similar transmutable skills. If it says MegaWibble Version 3 in the spec and the same in the CV you're in.

    The end result here is that the newcomers don't stand a chance as they have no text sequences to put on their CVs. The Oldies also don't get much of a look in, as they know KiloWibble Version 3 backwards and haven't yet had a look at the Newly rebadged MegaWibble .... which is pretty much identical, but sadly uses different characters in its name.

    When you have been in the industry for a while, you will realise that pretty much all products in a given field, work in pretty much the same way. The learning curve for someone already skilled in other members of the group will be minimal, plus they will have a more complete view of the field in general and may well be able to suggest better ways of doing stuff, inspired by the way other products in that field work.

    In an industry that mutates as blindingly quick as ours, we need a far more intelligent recruitment methodology. If we don't, we will end up with one side saying they can't find people to do the jobs and the other saying they can't get a job, even with good skills ... Oh, wait a minute !
  • If there is a skills shortage, why is the rate of employment of IT graduates so low in comparison to other disciplines? It took me 2 years of dogged effort to get an IT position.

    IMHO the problem is with employer's unrealistic expectations. They want "plug and play" experts but are not prepared to train people to get to that level.
  • The dwindling number of IT graduates in the UK should act as a wake-up call for companies to take action to educate their current employees before declaring a "skills shortage".

    With around 70 per cent of the world