Throw away the anoraks;FE Focus

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Chris Johnston reports on a project designed to fill the skills gap between Britain's labour force and the ever-expanding IT industry, which needs 75,000 workers - now

CONVINCING young people that a career in information technology does not involve wearing an anorak to work is one of the key tasks facing a new group set up to address the sector's skills needs.

The image change is regarded as essential if Britain is to reduce the massive number of IT vacancies, which the Government estimates is as high as 75,000. Alan Stevens, head of the National Information Technology, Electronics and Communications Skills Strategy Group, believes that altering the perception of young people - especially women - is the only way to attract more employees.

"The perception of people who work in the industry has historically been pretty negative, but the reality is very different. There is a huge amount of human contact ... so the idea that the typical employee is a lone techie in front of a screen for eight or ten hours a day is frankly not true," says Mr Stevens, who is also chief executive of the IT services agency EDS.

This image is partly why the percentage of women in IT is now lower (about 24 per cent) than in the late 1970s, and continues to fall.

Finding ways of making careers in the IT and electronics sectors more appealing is one of the objectives of the strategy group, which Mr Stevens says aims to help education providers ensure that graduates and school-leavers are better suited to industry needs.

While Mr Stevens says the group's first priority is higher education, looking further down the chain to secondary and even primary level is also important. "We hope to link the demand side with the supply side much more tightly, so that academic institutions understand precisely what industry would like - and when."

Traditionally the IT and electronics sectors have relied on graduates, but with annual growth running as high as 20 per cent they are no longer the only type of employee needed.

Mr Stevens agrees that further education has a key role to play in expanding the labour pool and says his company has found a more multidisciplinary and multicultural workforce is beneficial.

EDS has discovered that Modern Apprenticeships work - they are high-level Government and company-sponsored schemes to provide school-leavers and graduates with the skills for new vocational jobs. Sandwich courses for graduates and others are also becoming more commonplace.

"What we're seeing across the industry is all sorts of different training mechanisms being built for the simple reason that we need to find other sources of employees," he explains.

Mr Stevens says that industry has a responsibility to help educators and students to understand what jobs in IT and electronics are really like. The group aims to produce a skills framework to explain what is needed to become a software engineer, for example.

These more formal job descriptions will then be used to drive labour market intelligence studies and to obtain forecasts from employers about job vacancies. This data will help to give colleges a better idea of future industry demands, and influence factors such as the number of places allocated to different courses.

Mr Stevens is confident that education is aware of the need to become more responsive. "The half-life of knowledge in some areas is getting much smaller ... so you need courses that produce people with capabilities that are not obsolete when they graduate."

The strategy group will produce an interim report by Easter, followed by its final report in July. It will report jointly to the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Trade and Industry.

The group's members have a difficult task in coming up with ideas that will encourage change in an industry more likely to poach from the opposition than take on raw recruits and train them up. But they must find the right answers if Britain is not to become an also-ran in the global IT race.

Contact the strategy group via the Skills Task Force on 01325 393 761.

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