Offers of much higher pay are tempting college computer chiefs to leave for private industry, Ian Nash reports.
Hundreds of top-grade computer managers and technicians are quitting further education colleges for highly-paid jobs in industry and universities.
The exodus has left some in crisis as they struggle to train new staff to manage information systems vital to the smooth running of complex institutions, many larger than most universities and schools.
Senior computer systems managers on pound;28,000 are typically being offered pound;8,000 extra plus a company car - a perk that is still rare in colleges - to join private industry.
It is part of a major problem of staff recruitment and retention revealed this week in a national survey by the Association of Colleges as the gap between pay in colleges and industry widens.
One in five colleges had difficulty recruiting and retaining managers, just over a third suffered lecturer shortages and a quarter could not fill vital curriculum support posts. All areas were hit by shortages, but information technology and computing were most often quoted.
Carole Burgess, principal of Westminster College, said: "Because we have such complex auditing systems we need very good people but they soon move to jobs in banks and the City."
John Rockett, principal of Rotherham College, said one solution was to train people up from scratch. "It is not good enough to depend on one or two at the top. We must train people at all levels to manage information systems."
But the AOC survey suggests this is not the solution. Chris Hughes, principal of Gateshead College, said: "We cannot get people by advertising and, when we do train people up, they immediately move on to another job."
The biggest crisis is in inner-city colleges - such as London, Manchester and Newcastle - where financial service and support industries are crying out for trained staff.
Sue Dutton, acting chief executive for the AOC, said that while colleges were spending a lot on training, they did not have the flexibility to offer competitive pay rates. "Private industry can afford to pay the market rate for the job and we cannot."
This week, the association submitted to Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett its estimates for new funding needed to run colleges. The sector needs pound;315 million this year, rising to pound;715m by 2002, she said. This was additional to the extra needed for pay.
"Our staff recruitment problems are not helped by private sector awards running at over 5 per cent while ours are held back to half that," she said.
The wider question of the underfunding of FE was important because this affected people's careers, Mrs Dutton added. "With the sector being in such financial difficulties, it is too often the private companies which can give them the best career development once they are trained."
Staff retention problems hit all departments. "But in IT they have much higher levels of skills, making them more marketable and putting them at the forefront of management information development," she said.