How can there still be a technical skills gap in 2013?

Opinion Jan 22, 2013

Asks Andy Kennedy, MD of web development specialist and reseller, Tier 2 Consulting

Back in 2008 we saw the world hit with the worst economic crisis in living memory. Four years on and we are all still experiencing heavy austerity measures and one of the most severe recessions to date. According to the Office for National Statistics, levels of unemployment stood at 7.8 percent in September 2012 and an analysis by the IPPR (the Institute of Public Policy Research) confirmed that unemployment could rise by a further 200,000 in 2013.

However, there remains a significant skills shortage in the IT sector, with those involved in software development in particular struggling to find the right talent. Far from being an insignificant problem, this has a very real impact on anyone in the industry, whether you’re a reseller, vendor or even end-user. So what is causing this skills gap, is there a solution, and what choices do businesses have, other than offering staff over-the-odds salary packages?

At my company – a web application development specialist based in Hertfordshire – we’ve had two job vacancies open for a number of months. Although we have received a number of applicants from the UK, the majority of responses have been from abroad, and while sometimes resumes look great on paper, on further examination we have found that not one single candidate has matched the job specifications. Despite marketing one particular vacancy on a number of high traffic online recruitment websites, across different media outlets and through recruitment agencies, since April of last year, we’ve found it a real challenge to find someone with the necessary combined technical and personal skills to join the team.

I’m sure this is not an issue we’re alone in facing.

While it’s fair to say that working for a software consultancy – or indeed many aspects of the IT industry – is a specialist and technical job, and those based outside of London have to compete for IT talent with the city firms paying the ‘big bucks’. But even taking this into account, it has become increasing evident to me that in the UK we simply don’t seem to be producing enough quality candidates of the right stature. And like many other business owners, I need to understand why this is, and find ways to address the problem as it is inhibiting our growth, both as an individual company, and as an industry.

It doesn’t appear to be just me and my team that have noticed this huge technical skills gap either. I have seen a wealth of media coverage on the lack of skills from software developers - for instance, an ICT enquiry from e-skills recently revealed that almost half (40 percent) of graduates do not have the level of IT, business and communication skills to meet company requirements. To back this up, Claire McCartney, resourcing adviser at the CIPD (the Charted Institution of Development and Personnel) stated that there was a clear “mismatch” between the skills of the typical graduate and the skills in which our industry needs to operate successfully, and from my experiences I have to agree with her.

In addition, IT recruitment specialist, Modis International, found that more than a quarter (27 percent) of IT recruiters are struggling to identify candidates of the right quality. This figure rises to a staggering 44 percent for the larger corporates.

So what’s the solution? Of course, it would be wonderful if the government could wave a wand, and increase the supply of talented IT staff overnight - but sadly this is not going to happen, and any initiatives that may be introduced could take years to come to fruition.

So aside from lobbying government, as an industry we need to look to ourselves to bring the right profile of candidate into our businesses in the short-medium term. So for us that means our recruitment approach from now is the sponsorship of our local University’s coding course, with the aim of helping local graduates acquire the necessary skills and develop into employees which can help our business grow for a further ten years. I believe that businesses will increasingly have to think laterally in this way in order to attract the right talent, and a creative, innovative approach is a must. It’s also key for those outside of London to recognise that competing with the bright lights of the city by offering ‘over the odds’ salaries is not the way to build a sustainable services business.

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