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The IT hero for many youngsters: the father

It might be a truism to suggest the average UK school kid’s view of IT work is probably better informed by the Channel 4 comedy IT Crowd than any actual tech professionals. But it may be that the programme is actually a good start: the forum said its research showed that “the majority of young people have little understanding of ICT in the workplace or the technical skills needed to support careers”, but added that while there were no role models in the industry, teens look to their fathers.

That'll send a frisson of pride through some IT pros, but the creation of a caste of hereditary IT workers is not the preferred response to the current skills crisis - if only because it would take too long.

Still, the IT dads out there probably offer a more reliable insight into the realities of working in the technology sector than the views of government ministers and officials, who reflect the outlook and ambitions of the big vendors.

“I think the government does a good job of talking to the Googles," said Harris, diplomatically.

He cited BT as a company that’s particularly good at mentoring teachers. But the national telco is, at heart, a vendor and whether consciously or not, some of its executives will perpetuate their view of the world, just as bosses at Google or Microsoft would be expected to do.

And it is the views and wishes of vendors that are echoed in schools, which is why some kids treat Explorer as the default suffix to the word Internet, or why PowerPoint seems to be their default show-and-tell preparation tool.

So, again, it’s down to CIOs, architects and other IT pros to define their roles, fight in their profession’s corner, and give youngsters a gateway to rewarding technology careers.

“It’s not about the next CIO or chief architect. We want to have really good tech jobs at all levels in the UK,” said Harris.

And perhaps that’s the crucial point: creating jobs in the UK. This is where Harris is unequivocal about UK industry’s failure to give youngsters a path into IT in the first place, and to the top of the tree in the long term.

“Employers are absolutely part of the problem,” said Harris. “We’ve outsourced too much. Outsourcing became an end in itself.”

Cutting back on jobs may have netted short-terms savings, which, of course, boost the bonus of the CIO and CFO who waved such strategies through. But another result is now a dearth of youngsters with three to five years of experience, and, arguably, of mid-level IT pros.

March of the apprentices

Contractors are a stopgap, said Harris, but one that only postpones the day of reckoning - a view shared by 40 per cent of companies, the forum’s research suggested.

The suggestion that higher education should be the default route for 18-year-old school-leavers, and employers’ adherence to graduate recruitment policies, doesn’t help matters; it might actually work against producing rounded IT workers who’ve cut their teeth on the routine tasks that are often the first to be shifted overseas.

“There are plenty of 18-year-olds who don’t want to go to university,” said Harris. One approach that he wholeheartedly gets behind is apprenticeships. Or put another way, people beginning to learn IT from the ground up at 18, or even 16.

Even if you’re reading this while remembering stumbling into a lecture hall with a crashing hangover to grapple Pascal, you'll know plenty of people who stumbled out of school at 18 into work and, having opened up a couple of Sinclair Spectrums and got stuck in, are today senior professionals, even partners at consultancies, who only recruit graduates. You don’t know of any? Well, I do.

Of course, the problem with starting at the bottom is that you’re, well, starting at the bottom. Apprentices may not be set afire at the prospect of six months of administering login IDs at their new employers before being switched to tech support for another six months. But, then again, they may not be overly excited about the idea of racking up debts of £30,000-plus learning Java and C++ at university, only to launch themselves into a graduate trainee programme that starts them off... writing software to administer login IDs. If they’re lucky.

“It might help us match the outsourcing price point,” suggested Harris. It would be naive to think that the UK will match hungrier emerging economies on price points.

Thus, UK Plc should adopt a UK-first policy when it comes to its tech work, said Harris: “If we can do in the UK, do it. If can’t be done, then place it overseas.”

What are the alternatives? Either more jobs higher up the food chain are shipped overseas because that’s where the talent is, or the current cohort of IT bosses are kept in harness until they drop - even if by then they’re capable of nothing more than managing user password resets. Neither seems an appetising prospect. ®

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