A sharper focus for the IT crowd

Computing graduates are dwindling, but two new OU degrees could change that, says Yvonne Cook
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The Independent Online

At a time when 83 graduates are chasing each single job vacancy, according to latest figures from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, a recruitment crisis is looming in the UK’s information technology industry. An additional 500,000 workers will be needed in IT and telecommunications over the next five years, according to a report published in January by e-skills UK, the sector skills council for IT. It predicts that jobs in the sector will grow nearly five times faster than the UK average over the next decade.

Yet students and recent graduates – the main source of new talent for the sector – are shunning IT in ever greater numbers, preferring careers in sectors such as financial services and energy. The number of applicants for IT-related higher education courses has dropped by 44 per cent since 2001. In schools, the number of computing A-levels taken has declined by 60 per cent since 2003.

They now constitute just 0.5 per cent of all A-levels sat. Not surprisingly, the age profile of the profession has risen: under-30s made up 33 per cent of IT workers in 2001, but only 19 per cent in 2010. Over the same period the proportion of IT workers aged over 50 almost doubled. As well as representing a missed opportunity for young people, the situation has serious implications for the UK economy. The IT and telecoms industry currently contributes £81 billion per annum to the UK economy, and this is expected to grow.

“The IT and telecoms sector is fundamental to securing private-sector-led economic growth in the years ahead, delivering productivity and global competitiveness, and creating the high-value jobs on which the whole UK economy increasingly depends,” according to the e-skills report Technology Insights 2011.

The report adds: “At current course and speed, the UK will fall behind. Even in the recession, organisations are continuing to report IT and telecoms-related recruitment difficulties and skills gaps both at ‘professional’ and ‘user’ level, and just in the last year, the competitiveness of the UK’s IT industry has dropped from third in the world to sixth.”

The information security industry – where a recent survey by the cyber security network SANS suggested more than 90 per cent of employers are having trouble recruiting – is so worried about the lack of skilled personnel that last year it launched a nationwide competition, the Cyber Security Challenge UK, to try to raise the profile of the information-security profession.

The industry has also been working with the Open University – one of the sponsors of the Cyber Security Challenge – which has a long history of using and teaching IT. In June the OU launched two new part-time undergraduate computing and IT degrees that it has developed in conjunction with e-skills UK and employers in the sector. The open and distance- learning degrees will cater both for new entrants to IT, including career-changers, and existing workers who need to upgrade their skills.

“If we are to secure a healthy pipeline of talent coming into the industry then we need to engage people at all stages in their career in relevant industry learning,” says Mark Ratcliffe, director of higher education engagement at e-skills UK. “As a flexible and adaptable education provider, the Open University is perfectly placed to do this. Its emphasis on work-based learning means younger students with less experience can earn a salary as they study, while more experienced students can earn credits for their existing skills and knowledge.”

The new degrees are more focused on the needs of industry than has been the case in the past, according to Kevin Streater, executive director for IT and telecoms at the Open University. “I was talking to one of the senior technical directors at Hewlett Packard recently, who said he had 300 highly paid jobs he couldn’t fill, because they didn’t have the people applying with the right skills,” says Streater.

“The Open University’s engagement with the industry has highlighted a perceived lack of business acumen among those coming out of education, and an inability to put technical skills to use in a work setting. Our new degrees are designed to tackle these two major issues. There is a joint degree that allows candidates to study IT alongside commercial subjects, improving the business acumen of graduates, as well as a single award that provides students with clear paths to specific IT roles, giving them more specialised skills.”

Students can incorporate courses designed by commercial IT vendors such as Cisco and Microsoft, and work-based learning, as part of their degree, he said. Streater believes that there also need to be changes lower down the education ladder, not just to improve young people’s IT skills, but to give them a clearer understanding of what the subject involves. “Because of the way IT is taught in schools, many people equate it with computer literacy – they think if you can do a PowerPoint presentation and handle spreadsheets, that makes you good at IT. It doesn’t. IT is about how a computer thinks and operates, what data is and how you manage it and get intelligence from it, and turn that into value for business.”

He said the field has developed so rapidly that many teachers have been left behind – as the Department for Education has acknowledged by funding Vital, www.vital.ac.uk, a continuing professional development programme for teachers using IT, which is run by the Open University. One of its aims, says Streater, is to give teachers a better understanding of what business wants in terms of IT skills.

Dr David Bowers, the director of the OU’s undergraduate computing and IT programme, thinks that the decline in popularity in IT as a subject is due in part to way we all take computers for granted nowadays. “For the core course on our new degrees, which is called My Digital Life, we are trying to put some of the excitement back into computing. Computers in the future will be less important as devices you sit at, and more important as devices embedded in your environment. So we let students build and program their own ubiquitous device, using a ‘sense board’ that connects to their computers.

“People now tend to see computers as things to run software on or for social networking. There is no longer that awareness of the excitement and challenge of programming. In schools computers are tools to write reports on, rather than machines to be programmed. This is a false perception. There is still a lot of exciting stuff that can be done.”

‘The OU’s widening access to education is inspiring’

Open University researchers in human-computer interaction demonstrated a computer-controlled Music Jacket they are developing to help novice violin players improve their performance. Sensors in the prototype jacket track the player’s movements and give vibrotactile feedback when the violin or bow is held incorrectly.

The device was one of a range of projects shown to civil servant Martin Donnelly, permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, on a visit to the OU in June. “What I found most inspiring there,” said Donnelly, “was learning about the resources targeted to widen access to education across the UK, the technologies being developed to support students studying part-time and the commitment to educational excellence.”

For more information about OU computing and IT courses see www3.open.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/computing-and-ict/