Understanding the ICT skills shortage

There are indications from this year’s MIS 100 that the skills shortage is becoming less of a concern for IT management. However, it seems equally clear this is not due to shortages lessening, but to IT management simply coming to terms with an environment of constant shortage.

To investigate further, Computerworld and CIO invited industry luminaries to a roundtable lunch where their range of views and insights threw the skills challenge into sharp relief.

New Zealand Computer Society CEO Paul Matthews — the organization that recently took the Ministry of Education to task over its IT curriculum — ranked the challenge as extreme, nine on a scale of 10.

“There is a lot of talking about it, there are probably four or five different groups talking about it,” Matthews says. “We are trying to move it beyond talking.”

Matthews says there are systemic issues, and there’s no sense of passion or excitement to attract people to ICT degrees, leading to a drop in enrolments. He says the perception is that the money isn’t there, whereas the reality is that IT is very well paid at the professional level.

“I have talked to parents who would rather have their children do an accounting degree because they think it is more exciting than ICT…we are not getting the message across,” he says.

Simpl Group CEO Bennett Medary, who has made an issue of skills and poaching in the past, says the industry is fragmented and does not present a united front like accounting and other professions.

“IT is much more fragmented in that area and there is a wide diversity of professional streams within ICT, whether it is project management or business analysis work, or consulting work or software development,” Medary says.

However, he says that is primarily the industry’s job — not the government’s.

“That is our job, our industry’s job, and I think our industry is notoriously poor at coming together and trying to present together a single message or, if you use marketing speak, something that is easy for audiences to get hold of.”

Medary says the young approach ICT as end-users and are used to seeing it embedded in the things they do. They take it for granted and don’t see it as an engineering or development issue. It could be that this is a change in the industry, and in the future we could be looking for different kinds of professionals to those we need now, he says.

Margot Buchanan-Oliver, co-director of the University of Auckland’s Centre of Digital Enterprise, says the issue is about more than ICT. She believes there is a lack of appreciation of business in the school system, from the primary level up.

“It is a job for all of us. Business people can get together to revitalize the concept of business’ contribution,” she says. Business is devalued.

“The other thing is that business, as we all know, is interwoven with ICT and other disciplines. There is no discreteness around ICT.”

ICT is embedded within every business practice, says Buchanan-Oliver.

The head of the university’s department of information systems and operations management, Dr Don Sheridan, says there is a lack of understanding about business among those enrolling at university.

“The first course is a service course on business computing,” he says. “The first two weeks we have to change the course and we have to teach them business principles, because they have grown up with the technology but they don’t understand the business system, or systems. It is astonishing. They go to McDonald’s and they have no idea what a supply chain is.”

Microsoft New Zealand’s managing director, Kevin Ackhurst, agrees that the concept of the industry and, indeed, of a career, is changing.

“I actually think the world we live in today is very, very different from the world any of us grew up in,” he says. “What constitutes business; what constitutes a profession is very different from the way we thought about it.”

Ackhurst says the individual now wants to choose from different elements of different careers, following a much more informal path.

“I think the people who are growing up at the moment and leaving school are likely to have possibly dozens of careers and not necessarily think of business in the same way as we do,” Ackhurst says.

The CIO of The Warehouse, Owen McCall, says the key issue is a lack of understanding, not just among graduates but employees generally, about business systems.

“They don’t understand business systems or processes and, therefore, how to deploy solutions in a smart way which can be utilized by the business,” he says.

“We get too caught up in the power of IT. It is only one part of the puzzle. In my view, it is not the most important part of the puzzle. It is an important part, but not the most important part.”

McCall says our inability to attract technology-literate people who understand the business is what is hurting New Zealand the most.

“The catch cry for us at the moment is we need to put more business into our business analysts,” he says. “The sharp end of the stick for us is to bring in [to IT] business-literate business analysts who know the business as well as, if not better than, the people who execute the business, so we can take that experience and figure out how to deploy the solutions that help them.”

Related content:

Government apprenticeship program lauded by ICT industry

Opinion: Top 10 dead computer skills

ICT sector should retain baby boomers, say experts

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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