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Skills shortage: it's mind over matter

Aptitude beats experience

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The IT skills shortage is like global warming - you either believe it exists or you don't. Either way, one thing's for certain - the debate refuses to lay down and die.

For those who believe there is a shortage, there is plenty of evidence to support their argument. And for those who believe the shortage is a myth that's perpetrated by businesses to justify sending skilled jobs to less-expensive regions or hire in inexpensive immigrant labour, then there appears to be plenty of supporting evidence, too.

The reality is somewhat more complex especially in software development. The software skills required by the IT industry and in user departments at any one time constantly change so there is always going to be a shortage of some skills some of the time.

The demand for SAP skills, for example, is expected to be high in 2008. Demand for skills in new areas such as open source, Linux, Web 2.0 and AJAX are almost certainly bound to be high next year too. And surprisingly, there is a growing demand for good, old-fashioned mainframe skills as the Baby Boomer generation retires and leaves a gap in supporting legacy systems.

Constant change has always been a problem in regard to skills for our sector, and is often the cause of perceived shortages. It has made it hard to define exactly what fundamental skills are important to developers. The scramble is always for this month's fashionable programming notation, operating system or database technology rather than on the underlying skills that define a properly qualified programmer, as SlickEdit's Scott Westfall points out.

Good programmers can learn fast and adapt to changes in technology relatively easily - provided they have good basic skills. Hiring teams would do best to pay attention to the late, great Edsger Dijkstra who wrote: "A competent programmer's most important assets are - perhaps in this order - an excellent mastery of his native tongue and a considerable mathematical maturity."

The worry should therefore, not be that there is skills shortage - but that the next generation of workers is either not interested in IT as a career or simply does not have the basic skills to train for the job.

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