Attention, CIOs: Stop outsourcing or YOU will never retire
Youth must have its fling, says biz forum chief
Walk down the hall. Look into the IT room. How old are the people in there? How are they getting on? Or are they just getting on? Would you trust them to keep the server lights on in a couple of years? Is there anybody actually in there at all?
If there isn’t, your company may be part of the problem that’s keeping John Harris and his colleagues at the Corporate IT Forum awake at night: who’s going to take over from today's IT workers when the time comes for them to log out for good.
Essentially, the UK is in danger of losing a generation of tech-sector professionals, and by extension the people who will be leading IT operations, even running companies, five, ten, 20 years from now.
And while the forum points its finger at the usual suspects - school IT courses and computer-science degrees that have little to do with the real world, and a government that listens to US-based vendors more than it listens to UK Plc - British industry can take a large share of the blame itself.
This is due to the industry’s woeful inability to convince young people that working with the insides of computers can be a satisfying, even well-paid, career. The sector's tendency to exacerbate this by sending the jobs overseas is also under fire. Not convinced? Well, that just proves the point.
By day, Harris is the vice-president of global enterprise architecture at Aimia Inc, the worldwide customer-loyalty firm that, among other businesses, runs the Nectar points scheme. Before that he was chief architect and veep for global IT strategy, innovation and learning at GlaxoSmithKline.
So, he was speaking from experience when he declared: “There are really interesting IT jobs - they’re not being highlighted in schools.”
“I think what’s really happening in the profession is misunderstood,” he added.
Whether or not that last point is true, the world of IT in the UK certainly has some big problems. In its recent report titled The Early Years, the forum’s Education and Skills Commission stated that a quarter of businesses believe the biggest bar to developing future IT leaders is “too few opportunities to gain experience due to outsourcing to other economies”. A larger proportion, 27 per cent, said outsourcing to other economies needs to be tackled to address the skills gap, while a third say it's the university courses that need to change to plug that gap.
Too many grads, not enough skills
Intriguingly, the report points out that the pool of computer-science graduates is shrinking each year, yet 17 per cent of university-leavers were unable to find jobs in 2011. This is a market in which the demand for qualified IT staff has increased by 23 per cent since 2010, and bosses at 59 per cent of ICT-dependent businesses said their firms are experiencing an IT skills shortage.
Delving a bit deeper, 57 per cent of companies complained of a shortfall in technical abilities, while 26 per cent said it’s business skills that jobseekers are lacking. Executives are struggling to fill the following roles: enterprise architects, product-specific jobs, solutions architects, application development and security.
This bizarre talent crisis is set to get worse over the next five years, exacerbated, according to the forum, “by outsourcing, rapidly changing skills requirements and a lack of consistency within in-house IT departments on the skills required for established job titles”.
Confusion over job titles is hardly surprising when tech courses, and education in general, is at odds with what employers actually need. Computer science nous and digital literacy - not necessarily the same thing, the forum is keen to point out - are essential to UK Plc’s success well beyond the IT department: whether it’s using big data so that the marketeers are not just working on hunches or gut feelings, or top-quality reports so that finance bods have a clue, or high-performance computing to underpin medical or engineering projects.
These are the jobs that Harris is talking about, and they’re not necessarily anywhere near the server room.
The forum cited research by the Confederation of British Industry - which lobbies on behalf of businesses - which concluded that two thirds of employers point to “problems in IT skills” among school and college leavers. And that’s the ones that bother to take technology lessons.
In ten years, the number of students securing an A level in computing has dropped 60 per cent; ICT A levels are down 34 per cent. Unsurprisingly, applications to study computer science are down 60 per cent since 2000. The number of comp-sci graduates is down 27 per cent. All of this is amid an attitude that “learning to use a computer, and learning computer science have become indistinguishable as far as students are concerned".
It’s easy to blame the education system and the students themselves, and Harris does criticise both albeit in a diplomatic way. But he also scolds the industry for failing to explain to youngsters why they should actually seriously consider an IT career.
Next page: The IT hero for many youngsters: the father
UK Companies are getting exactly what they desrerve
TBH this isn't so much because of outsourcing, which had an effect, but far more damaging was the Intra Company Transfer tax scam, these took jobs directly out of the UK job market.
I contracted for 18 years in the UK and saw the market killed in 5 years by the wholesale importation of cheap labour, I was out of work for 6 months in 2009 and the Jobcentre was full of guys with 10-15 years experience, you could hear them at the next table signing on describing how their company had brought in cheap non EEC staff who they had to hand their jobs over to, has been happening a lot and I had a number of contracts at UK sites where the majority of the IT staff were non UK labour brought in on ICT
I've got a perm job in Northern Europe now there are lots of experienced UK IT workers here, and I still get calls from agents desperate to find UK staff, but for the wages UK companies want to offer it's not worth the hassle, and I don't trust UK companies as far as I can throw them, they have the cheap young clueless foreign workforce they want now who they can bully to finish projects with threats of being sent home (saw one young team lead hospitalize himself staying up a full UK day, then on the phone till 3-4am to India every night trying to get his project working) they should sit back and enjoy their extreme cleverness, every time I read about another failed UK government IT project or screw up at a bank I just give thanks I don't have to deal with that kind of rubbish anymore.
This isn't just an IT problem
This has been happening in other industries for years and years. Businesses don't want to spend any money on training school leavers/grads so they look for already qualified staff. These staff get older and retire so then businesses moan about there not being qualified staff in the UK anymore.
Guess what? If YOU want skilled staff, YOU have to help them get those skills. If you're worried about them leaving, then you're obviously paying them less than they are worth. It should be part of every companies strategic thinking, "where do we want to be in x years time? what new technologies do we want to use". Then train staff in those technologies and hey presto, in x years time you're where you want to be and have skilled staff that are the envy of other businesses.
Its hardly rocket science.
'Competitive' means 'more profitable for management and shareholders.'
The UK has some of the worst board-level management in the developed world. Caste sclerosis and institutionalised arrogance and entitlement are a lethal combination.
There are exceptions - some managers do still work their way up through the ranks - but too much upper management seems to hold the oiks who do useful stuff for them in infinite contempt.
Rather than moaning at schools and colleges for not turning out oiks that are docile enough and smart enough - but not too smart - management could begin by admitting that most of the 'top talent' is parasitic and useless.
Any moron can cut costs by spending less. Currently those morons often have the top jobs. What's needed is a clear-out of the top levels, which replaces those morons with people who know what strategy is and understand that actions have medium-and long-term consequences on profits, and short-term gains can create long-term disasters.
Oak ceilings and dead ends
" the current cohort of IT bosses are kept in harness until they drop"
Well they also choose to stay in harness.
There's a real problem with career progression in IT in the UK. You do not have to go very far before the next step up the ladder, if there is one at all, means abandoning some or all of the technical work you (one hopes) enjoy and are suited to.
So there's an accumulation of managers who are either not particularly IT literate or not particularly suited to management and this creates a barrier between IT and the business.
There are some enlightened places where it skills are rewarded without requiring a move to management and even some where good skilled workers are paid more than the people who manage them (as ought to happen when staff management skills are easier to come by than some of the technical specialities) but it's not the norm.
The Civil Service (as of ten years ago when I worked there) treats IT as a blue collar activity (with time-and-a-half on Saturday and double time on a Sunday so guess when all the out-of-hours work happens) and there's no route up the tree, never mind a way of being involved in guiding the business.
My current private sector employer treats it strategically but only involves anyone with any actual IT skills once all decisions have been made, with marketing more likely to have an input into new work. There's a huge gap between the people (reading the Register instead of) working on the various command lines and management such that it is inconceivable that anyone in IT with IT skills could ever become head of IT.
If there was a recognition that businesses would do better to have IT skills all the way up (and across) the organisational tree then the recruitment and management of IT staff would improve, as would the career prospects and it would been seen as less of a dead-end career for geeks and freaks.
Why would you 'do something with computers' when the pay is less than your average surveyor / solicitor yet you have responsibility for the firms entire turnover and need to have knowledge superior to anyone else in the business?
Might seem arrogant but you will need to know as much about Tax as the accountant to configure the ERP, as much about manufacturing for MRP etc. I'm always amused when someone says 'oh I don't bother with computer stuff' yet tries to talk down to you about their 'expertise'.
Until such a career has the same cachet as an Architect and similar pay not many parents will want little Johnny to pursue it as a career.
Little Johnny if he has enough sense to do the job will see he is better off doing something that won't be offshored (though few jobs are immune) or onshored (thanks to successive governments subsidising big business by allowing ICT abuse).
Anyone my experience in corporate is that CIO's come from the business not IT they then have a series of advisers that are IT competent. Something I call the parliament model. This is why outsourcing is so common, sometimes they listen to vendors with nice lunches more than their advisers.