IT skills shortage is hurting UK companies
How a former Soviet republic is helping to solve this problem
“The country that invented the computer is throwing away its great computer heritage by failing to teach programming in schools. I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman and Former CEO of Google
Despite the fact that employment in the IT industry is expected to grow at nearly 5 times the UK average over the next decade, careers support and education for young people interested in pursuing a career in IT is still in disarray.
A recent report to the House of Lords* outlined the scale of the problem. The standard of Computer science educational curriculum has steadily declined at all levels through from school to university over the past 10-15 years. The number of young people studying and choosing careers in IT has correspondingly decreased and therefore not kept up with growing demand. As a result, graduates are becoming less equipped to enter the job market meaningfully in a competitive market, with overseas students often being better qualified.
IT skills gap is damaging UK businesses
If the status quo in IT education remains, a widening skills-gap will take its toll on UK business. Without the right careers guidance and curriculum there is a danger that in the short-term the situation will only get worse, with employers forced to recruit outside of the UK to fill the gap
This is backed up by employers such Laterooms.com CTO Stuart Hughes, and Mark Holt, CTO at thetrainline.com. Holt explained recently: “We have a big website and we process an enormous amount of transactions. But, there is a shortage of “really talented” developers. We have vacancies for as many developers as we can recruit and are receiving many applications for these roles. But while we have been recruiting one or two developers a month for full-time jobs, we are eager to recruit even more – but haven’t been able to because of a dearth of talent.”
There have been a number of initiatives to teach coding at schools with the belief that an increased interest at an early age will eventually filter through into more high quality graduates but this might not be the case. With a “quick fix” like this, in all likelihood the teachers will not be sufficiently practised in development to teach the right kind of skills, and any coding languages learnt at this stage are likely to be out of date by the time the students eventually join the workplace.
This detach between the UK education system and what businesses need is not likely to be sorted in the short term, meaning that companies are having to look at alternative ways of getting the developer expertise they need to succeed. From recruiting aboard to off shoring, all are valid solutions to the problem but can come with a risk. So, the source of the skills being recruited needs to be examined closely.
World class IT skills
One good example of a country that has invested wisely in developing IT skills is the former soviet republic of Belarus. Recently recognised by Gartner as one of the top 30 countries for offshore services – “A strong education system and cost-competitive salaries, together with a reasonably strong workforce, have enabled Belarus to develop a mature IT outsourcing industry, supporting the country as an alternative destination for offshore activities, especially software development.”
It has a higher literacy rate (99.7%) than both the UK and USA and it is this level of knowledge that has helped to underpin their investment in IT education. There are now some 54 universities in Belarus and 16,000 graduates with ICT and related technical skills produced annually. Cliff Reeves, General Manager, Emerging Business Team, Microsoft Corporation stated,”Belarus has a reputation of a country with a high scientific potential. This reputation is not gained overnight. It takes 50-60 years to establish a strong education system with highly qualified faculty“.
Belarus software engineers frequently win worldwide software competitions, demonstrating the highest qualification and experience levels. For example, the Google Code Jam is an international programming competition hosted and administered by Google. The competition began in 2003 as a means to identify top engineering talent for potential employment at Google. The competition consists of a set of algorithmic problems which must be solved in a fixed amount of time. Competitors may use any programming language and development environment to obtain their solutions. In both 2013 and 2014 it was won by an entrant from Belarus.
High tech centre of excellence
The development of the IT sector in Belarus has deep historical roots. Once known as the Silicon Valley of the former Soviet Union. More than 40 years of scientific research in hi-tech fields created a world-leading system of technical education and training. As a result, the country’s scientific and academic infrastructure still produces top quality engineering specialists.
With its population of approximately 10 million, Belarus hosts the largest and most established European IT outsourcing providers in Eastern Europe and the CIS countries. According to the FORBES Magazine, “Per Capita Income from IT-Services Export in Belarus exceeds that of Russia and Ukraine.
Belarus focuses on the quality, preferring to hire 1 highly qualified specialist instead of 10 novices.”
“These skills coupled with a high proportion of English speakers and only a few hours time difference have made Belarus an attractive proposition for UK companies looking to solve their development problems by off shoring,” explained Neil Turvin, CEO of Godel, a leading software developer with offices in the UK and Belarus. Neil continued, “The establishment of the Belarus High Tech Park in 2005 has provided a real focus for IT skills in Belarus and has enabled the IT market to develop at a breakneck pace without any loss of quality.”
This has enabled Belarus to turn itself into a high-tech centre of excellence that UK and USA companies are happy to use for key software development projects. The rich IT talent pool enjoyed by Belarus is already one of the largest in the Central and Eastern European region. However, the country has no intentions at stopping there. The Belarusian government has ambitious goals of expanding the pool of IT resources by more than 10X over the next few years.
Commenting on their use of Belarusian resources, Stuart Hughes, CTO at LateRooms.com said, “We have a very technically capable team internally but the peaks and troughs of demand mean that we are always looking for quality that can complement our in-house talent. Being able to scale a team with such demands on quality and agility meant we had to choose a partner carefully; previous experiences have resulted in the team slowing whilst up skilling external partners. The quality of the Godel team has meant we can on-board quickly and use its engineers in different areas of the business based on demand. The flexibility to rotate staff between working on shore and near shore has helped us get the vital domain knowledge into the team and make them feel part of our culture .”
* UK Computer Science Education in the 21st Century – Restoring Turing’s Legacy – Yva Thakurdas