Governments failed to foresee IT skills gap

The increasing lack of people with IT skills vital for keeping the UK competitive was not fully recognised by past governments, Lord Triesman has said

UK governments have let slip opportunities to narrow the shortage in IT skills, according to a prominent Labour peer.

Lord David Triesman, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, also said that UK governments had not previously fully recognised the nature and scale of the skills problem now facing the IT industry.

"I'm not sure the government has been caught out, but one thing we have let slip by is: by concentrating on the change in the structure of employment and the decline in mainstream manufacturing, we've not been concerned with people at other [skills] levels," Triesman said at a Westminster eForum event on Thursday, referring to non-manual skills such as those required in IT.

Triesman said that improvements in IT skills were critical for the UK's IT industry to remain competitive. "We need IT skills, as we are going to earn our living from our brains," said Triesman. "In the 24-hour, global economy, the front and back room may not be in the same part of the world, or even in the same time zone. We need to invest in skills, improve higher education, and provide incentives for innovative knowledge transfer."

According to Triesman, the government has taken positive steps, both in working with partners to identify the needs of employers and individuals, and by working with local employment and skills boards.

Triesman also praised the work of e-skills UK, the government's sector skills council for IT and telecoms. "E-skills has been energetic in driving through a number of initiatives. The Computer Clubs for Girls has been an important initiative. E-skills is also working to develop a qualification framework, bringing together employers and government."

Karen Price, the chief executive officer of e-skills, speaking at the Westminster event, said the IT skills shortage is in part due to falling numbers taking IT-related degrees, accompanied by the increase in demand for IT professionals as the industry boomed.

Price said that the gap in skills could not be plugged by offshoring and outsourcing, due to the importance of proximity to suppliers for IT projects. "You can't outsource or offshore an entire project," Price said. "Proximity to consultants and systems architects [is important]. Offshoring creates growth, which is why hybrid individuals [with both business and IT skills] are needed."

Andrew Herbert, managing director of Microsoft Research UK, said there is a "huge talent pool" in Europe but added that it would be difficult to reduce the skills shortage by bringing in workers from outside the EU. "It's quite hard to bring in non-EU people," Herbert said. "It's a challenge getting work permits."

Herbert added that, while large companies such as Microsoft and IBM tend not to have problems recruiting, smaller companies were struggling.