The UK economy depends increasingly on having a strong pool of technology professionals, and it’s not just the IT industry itself that needs this, but pretty much every business and public service organisation, in any sector and of any size – we just can’t seem to turn them out fast enough!
It’s a global problem as demands for IT grow in the information age, so if the UK is to compete we need to work hard to nurture the next generation of IT professionals and keep them here. But the UK, despite being a world leader in ecommerce and despite the strong encouragement from business and government, is arguably struggling more than others to grow the technology skills it needs. And it will only get worse as many of the earliest IT professionals from the 1980s are approaching retirement age.
Whilst there are plenty of jobs for experienced IT professionals, there are still too few ways to get that experience in the first place, even if you have the training. We need entry level enticement and support – training programmes, jobs advice, mentoring, professional guidance, exciting projects. The result of not paying enough attention to entry level is seen in higher premiums paid for technical and digital professionals and this can place smaller businesses in particular at a disadvantage. IT apprenticeships can offer experience on the job, as well proctical skill training. It can also keep costs down and ensure we develop the right skills and habits fit for the future.
This is why, during my year as President of the BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, I have chosen to encourage and to support initiatives that grow apprenticeships in IT, creating the next generation of IT professionals and BCS members. And this is not just about creating more apprenticeships – it goes right to the heart of the misperceptions of the IT industry turn off talent. I want to work with partners in business and government to overcome the barriers which we know exist, shown for example by the significant under-representation of women and young people in IT.
The problem is not just getting support from government and business – which is happening (for example, BCS is already involved with the digital industry trailblazer apprenticeships and will later this year, together with the Gatsby Foundation, launch the Professional Registration of IT Technicians). It also needs to address the myth that a career in IT is only about the technology – an engineering discipline looking after the IT ‘plumbing’. This can turn off those with more enthusiasm and talent for the application of technology and who may be less excited about the technology ‘nuts and bolts’.
This misperception of IT not only limits the attractiveness of the profession, but it also indirectly restricts the social and economic benefits which technology can bring. Many IT professionals have spoken to me of their frustration in the lack of understanding that some business leaders have of the risks and the opportunities of technology to truly transform their organisations. A broader base of IT skills can help to close that gap.
We also often seem to read more about IT project failure than about the skill involved in steering IT-enabled projects to success and so improving customer services, maximising competitiveness, increasing business agility and transforming public services. We need to do more to show how rich and varied IT jobs can be and the massive impact they have on business success.
The Government Digital Strategy highlights the digital imperative for the public sector as well, to drive efficiency and to engage better with the users of public services. Done well and this will not disenfranchise people or depersonalise services – far from it. But it needs smart digital leaders who understand the socio-economic impacts of IT, as well as deep technologists who will shape and design the next wave of technology in every sector.
I am delighted that BCS is already involved with the new Digital Industry Trailblazer apprenticeships and am looking forward to supporting this initiative. I would also like to see a range of new IT apprenticeships emerge which attract those excited by the business impacts of IT, as well as those enthused by gaining deep technical skills. This richer and deeper pool of new IT recruits will come from diverse backgrounds, able to blend business and technology expertise and experience – from schools, colleges, universities, those thinking of a career change or those returning to work after a career break – in fact any background.
IT apprenticeships in the UK can grow the next generation of IT professionals we know we will so badly need over the next 20 years to compete in a digital world and to better harness technology for social well-being.