IT workers urged to hone business skills

The root cause of the UK IT skills crisis lies within the existing workforce and their belief that technical competency is a master key to unlocking the next lucrative contract.

Declining numbers of IT graduates is partly to blame, but does not represent the "heart of the problem" according to agents at Search Consultancy, who claim the deficit will hit companies hardest in 2006.

"The root of the skills shortage comes from a lack of 'business minded' IT experts," said Gareth Biggerstaff, senior manager at SC.

"It used to be enough for IT specialists to be technically accomplished but now employers are looking for all-rounders who also have good business knowledge.

"This new type of resourceful IT specialist is so sought after due to an ever increasing amount of companies outsourcing their IT support."

Job applications from contractors seeking to make an impact should demonstrate an ability to "fit in" with the host company's business ethos and environment, while offering "the company more than just IT knowledge," Biggerstaff said.

Yet there is no quick fix to solve the problem, the agent added, despite his recommendation that IT workers should boost their marketability by 'grabbing every opportunity to get a broader grounding in business.'

In the future, he predicted IT professionals likely to be most in demand would be those candidates who can understand business strategy as a context for the IT support they have been trained to deliver.

Outside the consultancy, e-skills says that in the future UK clients will be wanting to secure contractors and IT project staff skilled in .Net internet technology, Java programming and security.

The failure of UK IT workers to upskill into areas other than technical expertise, as suggested by SC, is explained by IT practitioners reluctant to spend their hard-earned cash on education or training.

According to study of 100 IT professionals, just over a third expect to pay for their own courses, while exactly half said the financial burden of training was the biggest obstacle to expanding their skill sets.

At a time when Cobol programming and Fortran is dropping off the client radar as sought after skills, companies are being blamed for failing to reinvest in their IT staff.

"While training is still a concern for European businesses, there is still a lack of impetus for HR departments to invest company budgets in improving the skills of their workforce," said Mike Summers, director of Thomson NETg, which conducted the survey.

"Until businesses bite the bullet and accept that training must become an integral part of an employee's career development process, the threat of a skills shortage will continue to hang over our heads."

Accompanying research shows the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) Certification is the most popular course for IT professionals, followed by Cisco's Certified Network Associate that currently attracts around one in five practitioners.

Such courses offering 'hard' technology skills outpace the current demand for so-called softer courses, even though these are set to gain in popularity over the coming year.

In particular, management courses such as PRINCE2 and the Project Management Institute's certification have been singled out as the ones to watch over the next 12 months.

This emerges at a time when the number of ICT managers in the UK has soared almost 35 per cent over the last four years, coinciding with a slump in software professionals of around 40,000.

Elsewhere in UK IT, there has been a slight increase in the numbers of operating technicians since 2001, while all other areas, apart from management, have stagnated or declined.

The findings complement Forrester's study of UK and European IT companies, which found 46 per cent plan to reduce the number of operating technicians in-house, compared to just over half planning to hire more business analysts and project managers.

However, increasing certain areas of technical expertise was a priority for over a third of companies planning recruitment until 2006, to manage technologies and applications relating to grid computing, RFID, ERP and BI.

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