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Microsoft tripped up by Blighty's techie skills gap

Unis not working hard enough to please us, says UK chief

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One of the UK's top Microsofties told MPs on Tuesday that even the mighty Windows maker was feeling the impact of Blighty's skills gap.

Although Microsoft was able to reel in top-flight graduates, said Head of Skills and Economic Affairs Stephen Uden, its partners and suppliers were affected by the lack of science talent going into the tech industry.

Giving evidence to the Lords Science and Technology Committee on the quality of UK graduates in science, tech, engineering and maths (STEM subjects), Uden also had some coded criticism for "leading universities" who were failing to cooperate with Microsoft on making uni IT courses as industry relevant as possible.

There are good jobs in IT that aren't getting filled, said Uden:

Microsoft is a household name so we don't struggle to recruit, but we are at the tip of 30,000 IT companies and we're dependent on them for our revenue. They employ 300,000 people compared to our 3,000. And what I find is that there are significant skills shortages, they don't have the people to go out and engage with graduates and they don't have the brand to attract to people into what are very good, very high-skilled jobs.

Uden quoted a CBI Skills survey showing that 43 per cent of employers, not just in IT, had shortages of STEM graduates, and said he saw that impacting Microsoft's business partners: "That fits very closely with issues that I see on the ground for small businesses who want to expand and are in attractive growing areas of the economy but can't find the people."

Asked if there was a specific shortage of computer science graduates, Uden said that there was:

Only 50 per cent of the technical people that join us in engineering roles come to us with computer science or IT degrees - because IT pays quite well and people are willing to cross-train, what happens is that we're pulling in people who might work for other sectors from STEM: chemists, engineers, mathematicians.

There are also too many organisations who value STEM skills in growing areas of the economy, pulling STEM grads from a pond that isn't declining, but isn't growing to match the pace.

Uden had some veiled criticism for universities. Asked whether he was satisfied with the current crop of grads, he said that although the quality at the top end was often good, many university courses failed to keep up with developments in the industry.

IT is a very fast moving sector and we have an issue with the pace at which courses keep up to date with the sector. We have a group that works with universities: we think we can combine the relevance of what goes on in industry with the rigour of academic institutions. But there are some institutions that are keen to work closely with us but there as many others that aren't.

Uden later dropped in that it tended to be the leading universities who were the most difficult to work with.

If we could increase the relevance of courses it would decrease the time that IT companies have to spend retraining people. I guess we'll do it if we have to but it's increasing the time it takes people to get up and running, at a cost to business.

But then, he was also happy to consider bright sparks from different disciplines.

"Lots of the interesting discoveries in science are getting made at the boundaries between disciplines, so the idea that if you get trained in one thing you should stay in it, isn't something we want to encourage," he said. ®

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