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Should small businesses pay for skills?

The latest predictions about the likely shortfall in qualified IT staff - 300,000 by 2010, according to the European Commission - are worrying for anyone concerned about the long-term health of the IT industry.

To continue to provide first-class IT services to UK plc, it is critical that technology companies attract and retain the brightest talent available. Yet there is still an unwillingness across the IT industry to accept that one of the biggest handicaps is the failure to attract significant numbers of women into the sector and to tackle the outdated prejudices surrounding the roles of IT staff.

Of course, it is important not to underestimate the role that schools and colleges can play in encouraging young people to consider technology qualifications. However, with some notable exceptions, very little has been done by IT companies to tackle this problem.

Just as other sectors that used to be male dominated - such as accountancy, law or medicine - have taken positive steps to persuade more women to work there, IT companies need to follow suit. Too many IT businesses or departments are simply unwilling to change old practices. The old image of the ‘macho' IT engineer has largely been overtaken by technological advances - at Connect, for example, the majority of IT fixes are now undertaken remotely over the internet or on
the phone.

What is required is a far more imaginative approach to attracting women into the industry. Partly, this is about changing the culture of many technology businesses to make them more attractive to female staff.

Ensuring that internal company events are designed for both male and female employees is a useful starting point. Likewise, understanding the challenges that mothers face when returning to work is important. Companies can provide the retraining that will be necessary for those who might have been out of IT for a while, as well as design a flexible working structure to incorporate job shares, flexible working hours and partnerships with local childcare providers.

But what is essential is to find new ways to reach out to the next generation of graduates and school children to persuade them to consider IT as a career. Providing work placements and mentoring can also help.

These steps may not deliver instant benefits, but over time they could make a real difference in tackling the imbalance in the technology industry - and help reduce that skills shortage


Mark MacGregor is CEO of Connect

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