IT skills gap holding Scotland back

Companies are having to recruit from abroad to get work done. Picture: Getty
Companies are having to recruit from abroad to get work done. Picture: Getty
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The digital revolution is rolling on without us because we have no plan for providing the specialised knowledge needed, says Prof Ian Allison

Companies across the country are experiencing a serious IT skills shortage with many struggling to secure the staff they need to drive forward important initiatives. Scotland has been slow to respond to the challenge. Unless we act now the opportunity that the digital revolution presents will be missed.

Picture: AFP/Getty

Picture: AFP/Getty

For many years now reports have identified a growing demand. In the ScotlandIS 2013 survey, digital businesses are extremely optimistic about the future, with 70 per cent of member companies expecting to recruit staff in the coming year, with software development skills being the primary area of demand. It is difficult to put a figure on the growth, but e-skills are predicting 9,600 new entrants will be required in the sector each year for the next three years.

Securing staff with specialised knowledge is becoming increasingly difficult and hindering business development. The voice of employers wanting to recruit our graduates has got noticeably louder over the last year – with several requests a week for posts to be filled or seeking opportunities to pitch their company to current students. With some companies planning to take on ten or more graduates annually it is easy to see how the graduates quickly secure positions.

Opportunities remain untapped

In addition to the “steady state” demand for new skills through business growth, we are seeing new demands in areas such as big data analytics. Big data is providing Scottish businesses across all sectors significant opportunities through the value of understanding the patterns that lie behind the volumes of data. To date though, these opportunities remain largely untapped due to the lack of skilled resource to take up these opportunities. According to e-skills, demand for people in “big data” is forecast to increase by a rate of approximately 18 per cent per annum – or approximately 132,000 new UK job opportunities in the field by 2017.

This all sounds like good news, but we are behind the curve in addressing the issues. Companies have to recruit from abroad to get work done. Whilst other countries take action we continue to talk about what we should do. In 2012 the Scottish Government’s “Scotland’s Digital Future” report recommended a Skills Investment Plan to be published by May 2013 – but what has happened? It is still going through government channels.

Polly Purvis, chief executive of ScotlandIS, highlighted in June that “we are now at a point where this is a serious problem. The lack of access to people is starting to hold back growth”. She said the intervention of Skills Development Scotland (SDS) had come after five years of highlighting to a range of government bodies the need for support in the skills agenda.

So, it appears that as yet there is no strategic plan to support the growth in resources required to create the future potential “global leading” digital economy. Urgent action is required to address the root causes if we are to take advantage of the global potential the technology sector can bring to Scotland if we stop thinking of it as just an enabling technology but a significant sector in which Scotland can lead the world.

We need to invest in our schools and universities – as well as growing apprenticeships and in-company professional development. In Scotland, we have some of the best university computer science departments across the UK – but they need the investment to grow. Following a decline in applications for relevant degrees after 2002 we are now seeing significant growth in interest, with a rise of over 70 per cent in applications at RGU in the last four years. Growth in funding to take more students would begin to alleviate the issue.

Attracting outstanding students to Scotland

But we also need to ensure the demand and interest is there amongst our teenagers. After two decades of suffering a poor secondary school curriculum, there is insufficient interest from the brightest pupils. A lack of intellectual stimulation has put youngsters off the subject.

However, demand is coming from mainland Europe, where students are seeing the potential in Scotland. Last year’s winner of the Young Software Engineer of the Year, for example, Robert Gordon University graduate Alin Rohnean, was originally from Romania. Attracting these outstanding students to Scotland is providing a vital boost to our economy, as they bring the mathematical and technical excellence required, but why are we not attracting enough top Scottish pupils?

The new Curriculum for Excellence, with its renewed focus on problem-solving and logical thinking rather than text book recall, is an opportunity for change in schools – but it requires local authorities to invest in teachers with the right expertise and enthusiasm for the subject. We need to develop engaging teaching materials and technologies. Scottish Government and NESTA have now recognised this and are putting funding into teacher CPD and awareness-raising activities.

South of the Border, the Computing at School Working Group, initiated by Simon Peyton-Jones at Microsoft Research, has made great strides, effecting change from the grassroots right up to government level. So, companies and professionals can help in inspiring the next generation of digital entrepreneurs and technology innovators – why not “adopt a school”?

Alastair O’Brien, public sector director of Amor group, sums up the impact of the lack of skilled resource: “The software industry in Scotland is crying out for suitably qualified graduates, growth in our industry is being restricted, and Scotland is losing out to other countries. It is unacceptable in the midst of a world-wide digital revolution that Scotland doesn’t have enough talented graduates to exploit fantastic global opportunities. In order to be successful, Scotland needs more qualified graduates, we need to encourage and provide the opportunities for the next generation of students to be part of such a successful industry.”

So our government agencies need to act quickly if Scotland is not to lose this opportunity to be a global leader in the digital economy. But we cannot leave it to government – it is a call to action for all of us in the profession to get involved.

• Professor Ian Allison is head of school of computer science and digital media at Robert Gordon University

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