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IT skills gap is new target for training

Businesses are being urged to turn to colleges to keep up with the software revolution, reports Neil Munro

MORE employers than ever are anxious that staff are not as skilled in information technology as they should be, and the leading training body wants them to turn to further education colleges for help.

But a key Scottish FE principal in the field has urged business to be more proactive in supporting the training needs of staff.

The annual report on IT requirements from e-skills UK, the skills council for the sector, shows that 61 per cent of Scottish employers believe IT staff need additional skills, up from 49 per cent last year. These figures compare with a UK average of 57 per cent this year and 46 per cent last year.

The council says this threatens future productivity, although it expresses confidence in the future supply of staff because of the healthy take-up of IT-related subjects in schools.

The number of students taking a Standard grade in computing has risen from 19,000 in 1999 to 21,000 in 2001. At Higher, those enrolling in computing or information systems rose from 4,783 to 7,143. There is a similar pattern of growth in the UK as a whole.

But added pressure on available skills is expected to be greater in Scotland where employers estimate their IT workforces will grow, albeit by just 0.4 per cent over the next year. This contrasts with a predicted decline of 7 per cent in the south-east of England - a slowdown which, the e-skills council says, is the result of strong growth in previous years.

The council recommends that skills be improved by having better links between training providers and employers. It is particularly important that courses are laid on for the existing workforce, it adds. Employers need to be more aware of the options that are available and they should be encouraged to turn to FE colleges, particularly to raise qualifications beyond SVQ level 3 (the Higher-equivalent benchmark for modern apprenticeships).

The report also urges employers to safeguard the workforce of the future by "adopting" schools and supporting their delivery of IT.

The Association of Scottish Colleges welcomed the report, particularly the positive noises about FE provision. It pointed out that the number of college enrolments in IT-related disciplines was up from 67,740 in 1998-99 to 113,388 in 2001-02. This represented a rise from 16 per cent of all FE enrolments to 22 per cent - the vast majority in FE rather than HE.

The Scottish Executive plans to open e-skills learning centres in seven colleges to help alleviate labour shortages in the electronics industry.

The first pound;200,000 centre was opened at Cumbernauld College in February last year by Jack McConnell, the First Minister, who spoke of the importance of modernising facilities so colleges can support local companies.

But Brian Lister, the Cumbernauld principal, said employers had to become more strategic if they wanted to address their skills problems. "We have held open days and we have gone to talk to employers but we find that they still rely on the individual to achieve qualifications or update their skills, rather than focusing on this as a strategy for their business and supporting it to make it happen."

Mr Lister said he hoped that the advent of the new individual learning accounts next year might change that approach.

Michael Kowbel, Scottish manager for e-skills UK, acknowledged that much more had to be done to bring employers closer to further and higher education. His council had set up a Scottish employers' forum, comprising 12 of the major IT employers, to do just that.

Mr Kowbel agreed with Mr Lister that the new individual learning accounts, as well as business learning accounts which are to be introduced for the first time, could act as a catalyst for improvement.

He also stressed the importance of employers stepping up qualifications from SVQ levels 2 and 3 to 4 and 5.

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