Skills shortage threatens UK e-business

A huge deficit exists between employee supply and demand in key knowledge areas right across the business spectrum, research to be published this month by eskills NTO has found.

‘There’s a massive skills shortage. For big companies it’s a question of quality, but smaller businesses can have trouble finding any skilled staff at all,’ said Price.

Yet most employers are unwilling or unable to address a problem which, quite avoidably, is becoming a crisis. The short-sighted attitude of business is something on which all industry experts agree.

The latest report from the European Information Technology Observatory predicts growing shortages in internet, networking and applications skills in the UK.

By 2003, demand for ebusiness skills will outstrip supply by more than 271,000 workers, or 20%, compared with 14% at the moment, said the report.

Worst of all, the big deficit is in business-critical skills which will be essential for competing in global markets. EITO highlights the need for staff skilled in Java, customer relationship management and online purchasing, but said that companies will also need staff whose technical skills are underpinned with an understanding of business.

Companies should be assessing their skills needs 18 months to two years ahead, explained Simon Mingay, vice president of analyst Gartner.

‘Future needs have to be built into individual training plans. If that was happening, there wouldn’t be a skills crisis,” he said. “The alternative is that you have a new project starting in six months and the only option is to bring in a load of contractors.’

‘The skills crisis is a self-inflicted wound. Companies are focused on recruitment rather than developing skills, but not providing training is the best way to guarantee your staff will leave,’ he added.

But that might be easier said than done, warned Dana Cuffe, chief information officer at online bank Egg. ‘We have to be in a mode of constant recruitment because people don’t stay for as long as they used to. We are constantly having staff poached,’ he said.

‘People get a job on a helpdesk for six months and then they can go for a job which doubles their salary. It’s just a fact of the IT world at the moment,’ he added.

The result is a culture of ‘short-termism’, where business necessities mean recruitment generally takes precedence over training and investment.

Add to this the wild card: the attitudes of employees themselves. Eito’s survey reveals that more students than ever before are leaving universities with technology qualifications – but they aren’t necessarily the right kind of student.

The traditional stereotype of the geek is still putting the best candidates off IT courses, warned eskills NTO. Students taking IT degree courses have on average 10% lower grades than other students, according to Price.

This factor is particularly telling with women: the percentage of female IT professionals fell from 26% to 18% this year.

The government has begun to address the problem, increasing the number of foreign IT workers allowed into the country, and publishing a Pounds 25m plan to build technology institutes to train 10,000 graduates per year.

It also has plans to place 5000 unemployed people into IT within three years.

  • First published in Computing

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