Tackling the IT skills shortage

Tackling the IT skills shortage

With a lack of support and solutions running dry, the shortage of skilled personnel in the IT industry looks like it's only going to get worse before it gets better.

Being an ever-expanding industry, information technology is continuing to grow at a rapid pace, with the technology changing faster than users can keep up with. As businesses become more in touch with their IT requirements they have an increasing need for staff, and not just any staff, but people who are highly skilled for the specific needs of each business' IT requirements. Resources such as these often seem impossible to find and, if you listen to businesses and recruitment specialists, they are.

So where does this leave Australia and what exactly is this skills shortage all about? And, more importantly, can it be fixed?

The IT skills shortage has come about for many reasons: lack of people wanting to work in IT, companies not wanting to train their staff, employees constantly on the move and educators not keeping up with the latest technologies and business needs.

Michael Page Technology specialises in sourcing IT professionals and regularly conducts research on the IT industry. Lesley Bishop, associate director at Michael Page Technology, says the skills shortage is cyclic.

"Skills shortage areas change -- it follows a logical supply and demand curve. At the moment there is a shortage in analyst programmers, but in 18 months people will have had time to skill up and that shortage won't exist anymore -- it will instead be somewhere else," says Bishop.

The problem for employers is that it is really difficult to find people with specialist skills. Because the technology is always changing, people want to upgrade their skills and move on to the latest systems.

"Good IT specialists want to gain exposure to these new technologies and will move to the company that will provide that, creating a continual move in the marketplace," explains Bishop.

Steve Ross, general manager of Com Tech Education Services, believes there are not enough people who want to work in IT. "People want to use technology, have mobile phones, use the Internet and own gadgets, but they don't want to design systems," says Ross.

According to Brian Donovan, CEO of the IT&T Skills Exchange, many people think working in IT means you will be writing code in a corner somewhere.

"But there is room for everybody in IT -- we need graphic designers to design Web sites, content managers, content developers such as journalists, marketers -- there are lots of jobs in IT that aren't technical," says Donovan.

That being said, the skills shortage is acute in technical areas such as SQL Server and Java developerment, with the demand being more and more Internet-driven.

Of the two major groups of people entering IT (school leavers and those changing careers), it is school leavers who are presenting the biggest challenge. In an attempt to address a general lack of interest by school leavers in working in IT, educators such as Com Tech are now trying to encourage more high school students to move into the industry by visiting schools and encouraging students to start a career in the industry.

But the problem remains that even if there were enough people with a sufficient interest to cancel out shortages, the faults in the education system and employers' lack of interest in graduates is still failing the industry.

There is also the issue of IT courses available at Australian universities, which are receiving widespread complaints, one of which is that there are not enough placements available to fill all available jobs. Ross estimates that out of 320,000 undergraduate students in universities across Australia, only 22,000 of these are studying IT. This is not enough when compared with the estimated shortage of 30,000 skilled positions in the industry, which is a figure set to increase as technology advances.

Another complaint is that universities aren't providing students with up-to-date skills. Partly because of the rate of technological change, students are coming out with a broad-based knowledge, which is neither specific nor specialised, in systems such as SQL Server, Cisco or Microsoft, which are currently in demand.

"We find that people are coming out of uni with outdated skills which is a problem, but technology changes so fast that it is hard to keep up," says Bishop.

And when universities have lost around $1 billion in Government funding since 1997, they are having a hard enough time just keeping faculties up and running, let alone pumping more money into the IT department.

This means that, upon graduating from university, students will either have to undertake further training to gain specific skills before being able to gain employment or get their employer to train them in their systems. And the problem with training is that it is very expensive. A three-month course at an institution such as Com Tech can cost around $11,000, which is similar to the cost of three years at university. This therefore automatically rules out many students who simply can't afford that up-front expense.

This leaves most graduates with the hope that companies will be willing to train them. But there is a reluctance for many to hire people who are inexperienced, let alone people who don't even have the skills. This equates to bad news for both graduates and career changers.

"There is also a reluctance within the industry in general to train bright individuals without commercial IT experience, whether from university, or those who have been successful in other fields keen to move their careers into IT," says Bishop.

This reluctance can basically be put down to two reasons. One is that IT needs of businesses are immediate. They need skilled and experienced people now and can't afford the time to train them. The other is that companies see it as a bad investment. They are afraid that if they invest in training their staff they will only be poached by their competition. So they are relying on contractors, but there just not enough experienced staff to go around.

"Some companies are afraid that they will invest in their staff only for them to leave. But you need to train staff and then pay them the market rate. You need to reward them with what they are worth in the market. These people all have mortgages and families -- they are going to go where they will be rewarded the best," says Ross.

And people want to be exposed to the latest technologies. In IT, the need to be on top of the latest technology is crucial, and that is precisely what keeps skilled people in demand and being able to command the higher salaries. If employers are unable to provide retraining and exposure to these new technologies, employees will invariably leave and find an employer that will.

Doug Hughes, marketing manager of JOBNET, the largest online IT recruitment agency in Australia, believes companies need to start moving towards training and retraining their staff.

"Companies now want Internet skills combined with business skills. But a lot of businesses aren't willing to invest in training. They don't want to spend the time or the money, which I think that's a mistake," says Hughes.

"In the long run, it will be more cost-effective for companies if they train their staff, but for now they might need people straight away so they scan the market looking for someone who already has the skills, but because of the shortage they can't find them. In the long run it is definitely worthwhile training staff," says Hughes.

Brian Donovan, CEO of the IT&T Skills Exchange, an initiative set up to combat the skills shortage, say a lot of companies do in-house training, but he agrees that there is a reluctance for IT companies to train their staff.

"They usually need people to start right away and they fear that the people they train will just get poached by other companies. But the more companies that go down that path the worse the shortage gets," says Donovan.

To make matters worse, the IT&T Skills Exchange found that educators aren't teaching students the skills that companies need. This problem stems from the fact that there is little communication between educators and businesses.

When speaking of the findings, Donovan says: "The connections between training and educational institutions and the industry are very poor. This means that the educational institutions are teaching the wrong stuff - they aren't teaching skills that companies need and companies aren't actually articulating what they need."

So what actually is being done about the problem? Companies first started getting serious about the skills shortage about two years ago when surveys predicted there weren't enough people to fill projected positions and the IT Skills Taskforce was created, which has now developed in to the IT&T Skills Exchange.

The IT&T Skills Exchange is funded equally by the industry and the Federal Government. It plans to encourage businesses to adopt training practices to cater for future needs and move away from "just-in-time training", raise awareness of the skills shortage and manage communication between the business and education sectors.

"The skills shortage is a worldwide problem, so the option to recruit talent from overseas just isn't there anymore like it was a few decades ago. So we needed to expand the available skill school," says Donovan.

Donovan believes that if the IT skills shortage isn't rectified it will have dire consequences for Australia, adding that developed countries need to be able to compete globally and if Australia doesn't have the IT skills it will be left behind.

"We need to be part of the developed world and to be a part we need to have IT skills. Britain, the US, Ireland and the EC as a whole are all developing their own IT strategies," says Donovan.

It would seem that we need more than research into the industry and better relationships between businesses and educational institutions, which is what the IT&T Skills Exchange is offering. And it can't just be left to the industry to sort out. The Government is funding the IT&T Skills Exchange to the tune of $5 million, which considering the problems it confronts, hardly seems enough.

According to Com Tech's Ross, the industry needs more Government assistance in the form of more funding in education or tax breaks.

Whatever happens, Australia has very little time to get it right. "At this stage, the threats are very real, we only have a year or two to respond or it will be too late. IT skills signify literacy in today's economy," says Donovan.

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