This summer thousands of students across England and Wales are sitting down to be examined on an ICT GCSE programme that education secretary, Michael Gove has committed to revamp. The Government’s aim is simple and well intentioned: to update the current ICT curriculum, with its focus on teaching basic applications, with a more relevant and useful curriculum that concentrates on programming and other more advanced computing sciences.
This is laudable, but there is a long-term legacy of inadequate training that needs to be overcome and it will take some time for those starting the new courses to join the technology industry. Moreover, the scale of the problem we face in the UK means that the new curriculum will form only part of the solution. We need to encourage more people to study technology related courses in the first place and need more businesses to take up their role in training graduates in the specific skills required.
The ICT skills gap facing UK businesses is both quantitative and qualitative. The quality gap is between the competencies of new engineering graduates and those essential for the IT industry. As well as specific technical skills in growth areas like cloud and big data, the industry needs young people who have well-developed planning and project management skills and soft skills, such as the ability to effectively communicate with colleagues and business executives.
The quantity gap emerges between the needs of a high-growth industry and the employable pool of people. It is currently estimated that the IT workforce is expected to grow twice as fast as the overall UK workforce over the next decade. No longer is technology the concern of just the technology department; it is an integral part of virtually every business in the UK. For many companies this is obvious, but for small businesses, mobile email, sales and social media play an important role. And as cloud technology becomes more widespread, thousands of companies are getting access to service-based computing to enhance their business.
So as ICT becomes more important, what can businesses do to mitigate the skills shortage?
In the first instance, the UK can look at how the business community in India has reacted to similar problems. Despite having a huge amount of students graduating from its universities with engineering degrees - around 550,000 each year - only 25 percent of this total is readily employable by the country’s technology companies. India’s booming technology sector has worked closely with the national government to address the root cause of this skills gap by plugging it with additional education and training.
Tech companies in the UK should follow this lead and take a more hands-on approach in the training of future employees. Businesses must step in to the breach and ensure that there are enough skilled workers to keep the nation’s technology industry competitive.
A key aspect of this will lie in ensuring there is a real interest in studying ICT and in progressing with it to career stage. In India, Infosys helped achieve this through its Campus Connect Programme, a partnership with academia which saw us train faculty and students in over 500 rural colleges across the country. The programme provided seminars and competency development programmes, as well as student projects, case studies, and faculty sabbaticals with Infosys.
The results have been impressive. We have witnessed positive and measurable results in terms of both student and teacher satisfaction. The programme has resulted in a higher employability rate, as well as increased industry-readiness. This in turn has led to enhanced technical and behavioural competencies and better absorption of knowledge and skills. In short, it has measurably improved the ability of a new generation to do their new jobs.
Such schemes now need to be applied to the situation in the UK. Businesses are not afraid to invest in new technology or operational systems if their existing ones are not fit for purpose - the same thinking needs to apply to people joining the technology industry. A well-trained employee will return the investment in them ten-fold through increased productivity and better-quality outputs.
It is with this philosophy in mind that UK businesses should look to the apprenticeship model for inspiration. Apprenticeships have always placed the onus of teaching a craft on the masters of that craft, rather than on third-party educators. This makes sense, as it is the people who work in a given business on a daily basis who know best what is required of new employees.
In the UK the National Apprenticeship Scheme (NAS) funds and co-ordinates the delivery of modern apprenticeship programmes in the country. Infosys has launched its own apprenticeship scheme in collaboration with this organisation as we believe it offers an excellent channel for employers to take control of honing their employees’ talents.
There is also an important point about the numbers of people looking for a career in technology: the total is massively reduced by the low levels of participation by women. This is a massive oversight which threatens to rob the industry of up to half its potential recruits. The problem is very much evident today: according to e-skills UK, just under a fifth of the current ICT workforce is made up of women.
Schemes like Computer Club’s for Girls and Girls in IT, set up by e-skills UK, help inspire girls to consider a life in technology through after-school clubs and school visits from inspiring women in technology. These provide positive role models for young girls and need support from across the industry.
It is clear that the UK ICT skills gap is a real issue and not one that will be addressed by the established academic channels alone. While we wait for the Government’s forward-looking ICT curriculum to start to have an impact, there is a need for businesses to address the skills gap themselves. Through investment, proactively partnering with academia and developing practical apprenticeship schemes there is a lot that can be done to ensure the next generation of ICT engineers have the skills required of them.