Microsoft warns of 'acute' UK skills shortage

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

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."


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