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Digital divide 'widening'

MSPs say the skills gap in the new economy must be addressed if Scotland is to become more competitive in the brave new world of e-commerce, reports Neil Munro.

Skills shortages are continuing to damage the Executive's drive to establish the "new economy" in Scotland, according to MSPs.

A report on the new digitally-driven economy from the Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee says a widening skills gap and a poor infrastructure for information technology needs to be addressed urgently and the Executive should develop an "e-strategy" by next March, backed by the appointment of an "e-advocate".

Wendy Alexander, the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, will now study the recommendations before giving her reaction. She has expressed concerns about Scotland's sluggish digital record and has been urging the telecommunications companies to do more, particularly by investing in broadband technology.

Alex Neil, the committee's SNP convener, said Scotland was now facing "serious competitive weaknesses with our telecommunications infrastructure and increasing IT skills shortages among our workforce and new graduates".

The skills gap, according to the report, "relates to both the IT literacy of the population as a whole as well as the quantity and quality of graduates produced in areas relevant to the new economy". It recommends that one aim of an e-strategy should be a universally IT-literate population.

The Executive has already set targets for areas of its responsibilities, funding initiatives in colleges and universities, for example to encourage "IT pervasiveness". But the committee has highlighted blockages in areas such as the supply of high- quality graduates with IT skills.

It suggests that a start should be made by boosting interest in technological subjects in schools, particularly among girls (only 5 per cent of technology graduates in Scotland are female compared with around 30 per cent in Ireland). Attitudes to technology, the report states, can be established as early as the age of eight.

Surveys have shown an estimated shortage of 80,000 IT engineers in the UK. But Scottish Enterprise told the committee that, while Scotland produces a substantial number of well-qualified IT graduates, "many are attracted to higher-paying jobs in the south east of England and beyond, rather than remaining in Scotland."

The Electronics Scotland forum reckons its industry will need 5,000 engineers a year over the next three years, whereas university output is estimated at 2,000-4,000 a year.

The committee recommends that the Executive and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council come up with new initiatives to stimulate graduate output in subjects linked to economic demand, including learning lessons from countries such as Ireland which have tackled gender imbalances.

The HE funding council has already attached a premium to university grants so courses whose graduates are in strong demand can be expanded, but the report says this is a "supply side" answer to what is fundamentally a "demand side" problem of encouraging students to take these courses. The MSPs accept nonetheless that "Scotland's universities are probably now closer to business than they have been for some considerable time".

The committee compliments the groundwork being laid by the Executive and others to ensure Scotland has a place in the "premier league" of nations which are well prepared to exploit the new economy.

It also singles out some innovative practice in the FE sector - the Glasgow Telecolleges network, the Ayrshire farmers' market website set up by Kilmarnock College and Lauder College's e-Com Scotland Ltd, which is intended to help businesses and raise awareness of e-commerce.The report acknowledges, too, that there are factors outwith the Government's control, such as the flight of graduates to work elsewhere, although Scottish Enterprise is now trying to tempt back home expatriate Scots with the right skills.

The lifelong learning committee questions, however, whether the Executive is fully up to speed with the very latest developments in technology. It quotes the words of Richard Emmanuel, the founder of DX Communications: "If you can see the bandwagon, you've already missed it."

More harshly, the SNP has produced an alternative summary to the report criticising the Executive for having "totally failed to address the underlying and urgent problem of upgrading Scotland's infrastructure to meet the demands of the 21st century. There has been no acknowledgement that market forces alone will not provide connectivity within our nation."

The result is that Scotland is "being bypassed on the international information superhighway," the Nationalists say.

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