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.
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. ®