Mind the gap

Mind the gap

Polly Purvis, director of ICT trade body ScotlandIS, warns that more has to be done to get young Scots into the computer industries of the future.

Fifty years ago people knew what different jobs encompassed; a miner, a bank clerk, an engineer, a shipbuilder – you knew what they did.

But work has changed and increasingly people don’t know what roles involve – what is a geophysicist, or a business consultant? What does working in a contact centre or an intensive care unit involve? What for that matter is software or digital media?

And if we don’t know, how much more difficult is it for our young people and their teachers and advisers, to keep up with the changing workforce opportunities?

Take the IT industry, which encompasses software and digital media, as a case in point, whilst recent economic reports make for grim reading, the IT industry worth £4bn to the Scottish economy annually, continues to expand.

A key driver of economic growth, it’s creating thousands of new job opportunities every year. Over the next five years the IT workforce is expected to grow four times as fast as the average Scottish workforce.

Technology is now an integral part of virtually every business in Scotland, from social media to cloud technology, and so technology skills are likely to be in even greater demand. The sector already employs over 100,000 people in Scotland.

People work for well known companies such as BT, Amazon, HP, Virgin and Microsoft as well as lesser known but growing businesses such as Bloxx, Craneware, Kotikan, Pulsion and CIVIC.

They also work in specialist technology departments throughout financial services, medicine, energy and engineering, and the public sector.

A highly paid, highly skilled industry offering attractive working conditions including flexible working and the opportunity to work all over the world, you’d have thought it would be easy to attract new employees, but the IT sector currently faces a growing skills shortage.

This is partly because the industry has a low profile, but perhaps more importantly because young people in particular have no concept of what working in the industry involves, and which skills are in demand.

I suspect this is an issue very many businesses face, particularly in fast paced industries where there is constant change. We can’t rely on hard-pushed careers advisers being able to keep up with these changes.

Those of us in business need to help address the issues, too. At ScotlandIS, as the trade body for the IT industry, we are working in partnership with Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Funding Council, our sector skills council, and others to tackle these problems.

We very much welcome initiatives that are starting to deal with some of the challenges – such as the new “World of Work’ website developed by Skills Development Scotland to provide up to date careers advice, and the BigAmbitionScotland portal aimed at informing youngsters and teachers about careers in our industry.

We’ve been a partner in developing, e-Placement Scotland, an industry specific placement programme for college and university students to give them real paid work experience before they make their career choices.

Not only does it improve their employability but it also helps open their eyes to the wealth of opportunities available to them.

There is still more to be done before the general public really understands what working in the IT industry today entails, but these are steps in the right direction. We’ve found the partnership working very effectively and would recommend it as a model for others in the business community.

The technology sector skills gap is a real issue and not one that will be solved overnight. We need to ensure the message is understood at all levels, by school pupils, teachers, and parents right through to careers advisers, colleges and universities, and the wider business community.

There is a lot that we can be doing to attract new people to the industry - investing in up to date careers advice, engaging with schools, practical placements and demystifying the work the industry engages in.

Ensuring that young people understand the opportunities and gain the skills required will help to provide enough skilled workers to keep the nation’s technology industry competitive.

This will benefit not just the individuals and companies directly involved, but also our whole economy.