The e-skills UK-backed ITMB (Information Technology Management for Business) degree aims to arm graduates with the technical capacity to excel within an enterprise IT function and the business acumen that will allow them to engage with clients, understand business needs and network successfully. The degree itself was designed by more than 60 employers, including BT, HP and Logica, and is producing graduates that are in high demand.

According to e-skills figures released in January this year, 85 percent of ITMB graduates found employment within six months of leaving university, with the remainder carrying on in education. This success is a far cry from the depressing statistics relating to the unemployed youth in the UK, where students are constantly being informed of the tough jobs market.

CA Technologies is one of the employers and active campaigners of the ITMB degree. It even lets one lucky student once a year run the company for a day. Colin Bannister, CA’s CTO and e-skills' advocate, explains to Computerworld UK that the success of the degree is down to it filling a gap in the market for graduates that understand both business and technology. 

“I have been involved with e-skills for seven years now, and whilst we have improved dramatically from when we started, with now over 1,000 students studying ITMB, we are still not seeing enough graduates coming out with skills that businesses are looking for,” says Bannister. 

“Use CA as an example – we will always need pure computer science graduates in our development areas. However, if you consider the broader aspect of the business, you need a broader set of skills, especially in customer facing areas of the organisation. So while IT skills are important, and always will be important, the business skills are also critical.” 

What Bannister considers important business skills is varied, but he highlights two main areas that he thinks technology students lack in the job market – project management and soft skills. 

“The ability to deliver is vital, which is why project management as a skill is important for these graduates. The gap between the IT budget and business expectations is a growing one, which means we need to deliver projects at a lower cost, quickly. Good project management skills will help with this,” he says.

“If a student has also developed their ‘soft skills’ it is immediately noticeable. If a graduate is able to present and network well, they are always far more productive much earlier on in their career compared to other students coming out of a traditional computer science degree.” 

The IT skills gap in the UK is a well-known problem by those in the industry and is often a hot topic for senior IT executives that are desperate to hire well-rounded technology graduates. However, Bannister has little patience for IT chiefs who complain about the skills crisis and yet refuse to do anything about it.

He believes that companies such as National Grid, Shell and Deloitte, who employee graduates from the ITMB degree and actively promote its importance, are being proactive in solving the problem, but suggests that most are doing very little to change the industry, and that they need to step up to the plate.

“Companies are absolutely not doing enough to fill the skills gap. Hats off to all the employers who support e-skills and the ITMB, so I exclude them from my criticism, because they are actively trying to make a difference,” says Bannister. 

“However, I host a lot of CIO dinners and it really frustrates me when the skills debate comes up and large companies complain about the lack of good quality graduates.

“When you ask them, well what are you doing about that? Not many of them have an answer. You can’t just sit back and complain if aren’t doing anything to change the situation."

Furthermore, the government needs to start pushing the principles of the ITMB degree into the school curriculum, he says.

CA is also looking into forming an apprenticeships programme for young adults who have decided not to go down the route of getting a degree at university, which is something Bannister believes is important, having never attended further education himself.  

“I don’t have a degree and I think it’s important to not exclude non-graduates. There are an awful lot of people out there who didn’t go to university, which means there is an awful lot of talent that we are potentially missing,” he says.

“I also think that none of us fully understand the long term implications of the increase in student tuition fees for undergraduates, which might mean that many leaving school would rather do an apprenticeship."

“Whether or not someone who undergoes a three-year degree has the same skills as someone who undergoes three years in an apprenticeship is all part of the debate – I’m not sure what the answer is. However, CA is looking into it," he adds.

Finally, Bannister is calling on universities to address the skills gap in the UK. He believes that a lot of higher education institutions in the UK aren’t necessarily interested in the success of their students after they leave university, and that they should form closer links with the business community to create more options for graduates. 

“It is also a numbers game for the universities. They are interested in the number of paying students. I don’t necessarily think that they look at the outcome of their students, or necessarily care about what happens to them after they leave,” says Bannister, basing his opinion on his experience of sending his children through university.

"Students almost seem an inconvenience to the university, but they keep them there to fund their own research.

“One of the things I would ask of them is that they provide more sandwich courses – degrees that require one year on an industry placement. Close links with industry and business are incredibly important.”