Have the UK companies created the Skills shortage?

There is a prediction by the EU Commission that the UK will need an additional 500,000 IT professionals by 2015.  Britain must have the right levels, competencies and abilities to compete with both Europe, the fast emerging Asian economies and globally to sustain economic growth.

With IT having such a crucial role to play in the UK’s future prosperity, why have companies been so happy to have a hire and fire attitude to IT staff in the past, and is this in part responsible for the skills shortage?

I have worked for and at several companies over the last 25 years and seen many technologies and people come and go, often people go when the technology changes, but just as often it’s not been their choice.

Let’s look at history and a few examples….

When I started in IT the humble PC was mostly a stand-alone device, maybe it was used as a remote terminal as well, either via the RS-232 port or an expensive terminal emulation card and some software, but in general it was a bit lonely for the PC.  Then came the en masse take up of the networking PC’s.

There were several early systems which had their good and bad sides, the two main ones in the UK at the time where Novell Netware and OS/2 Lan Manager.  Because of the networking topology being so simple back then, the chances where if you built/ran/looked after a network server and clients you also did the physical networking as well.  Novell had the main advantage of being more cross-platform than Lan Manager with MS-DOS, OS/2, Windows, UNIX and Mac support.

When Windows came along it was common to see people trying to get everything to talk to everything else, and the Novell Netware guys (like myself at the time) learnt Windows skills as well.

Email on the other hand was more a hit and a miss affair, and required luck, skill and was more like practising the dark arts.  With the gateway software on one system having to emulate and talk to another system in it’s native language – I still remember the days of getting ccmail, x500, Unix mail and AS/400’s all to talk nicely to one another.  Then came Lotus Notes with all the gateways you wanted available, and Windows, OS/2, Mac, clients, it was like Christmas if you had the $50,000 for a site license which they wanted at the time.

By, now people and systems were becoming far more specialised.  I worked with ‘Notes experts’ who knew little or nothing about networks.  People who ran Windows Networks, but had no idea what the AS/400 in the same company did or how you accessed it, and so on.  Here I think the start of the downward slope in the UK started…..

If, you had been a Novell expert and the CEO had played golf at the weekend and come in on the Monday and decided to replace Novell with Windows, then there was plenty of companies still taking on Novell experts and the company just took on a Windows Network expert, and the Novell guy(s) left.  Rarely, did companies bother with cross training, as it was cheaper to hire new.

Sure, there was time where the experts got the manuals, learnt themselves and stayed, but I remember days where whole teams just up and left or were made redundant.  Even back in 2003, I was part of a Notes Support team, working at Origin, and within a year of the company becoming AtosOrigin, the whole team of 13 people were made redundant.  What, makes this more of a salient point here, it that AtosOrigin had the internal resources to of cross trained every one of us.  They didn’t make any effort to re-use the other skill’s the team had (networking, programming, project management).  I guess they did a quick cost benefit of the cost of training v the cost or redundancy.  The Act’s basic provisions are as follows:

An employee is entitled to a redundancy lump-sum payment provided they meet the following criteria:

  • 2 year minimum term of employment
  • Employment is terminated because of redundancy

The lump-sum redundancy payment is calculated as follows:

  • 0.5 week’s pay for each full year of service where age during year less than 22
  • 1.0 week’s pay for each full year of service where age during year is 22 or above, but less than 41
  • 1.5 weeks’ pay for each full year of service where age during year is 41+

In the case of the team, only a few people got more than a month’s redundancy pay.  So by far it was cheaper than retraining.

So the problem then is what happens when your chosen subject, that you’re an expert in goes the way of the dinosaurs?

If you’re lucky you have been learning something else all the time so you are not a one trick pony, but you may not have enough experience or the ‘pieces of paper’ that say you also know….

Well there is always self-training, or taking your hard-earned cash and paying to go on a course.

At the moment a somewhat safe bet is networking – not the Windows/Novell/Linux stuff but the actual physical layer and the routers and switches, let’s just say Cisco….

So, you want to get back in work asap, you have some experience, but you want the bit of paper to get you through the door, so a boot camp is the quickest method.

But, since you live in the UK you have a problem, the cost….  Here’s a comparison I just pulled of the web:-

Prices for CCNA bootcamp

Provider Country  Local Currency Inc. Accomadation  UK Total
Boston Training USA $3195 No £1,969.24
TrainUp USA $2950 No £1,818.24
Comstor UK £2,495 + VAT No £2994
Bilsoft India $1020 Yes £628.68
One2Train Netherlands 2790 EUR No £2,331.45
Global Knowledge Belgium €2,795.00 exc. VAT No £2,802.76


Now, as you can see the UK is the highest….  But you say, if I go elsewhere I have travel, food, accommodation and so on….  Well, unless you live next to a training centre in the UK, then you’ll have to add travel and that in the UK isn’t cheap either…

If I look at travel to London then I’m looking at rail, plus the cost of the travel to the station, plus parking.  Just adding the train here and I get:-

Rail Travel to London £87.70 weekly pass or £133.5 if paying 5 days Travelcard

So, my cost is now a total of £3081.70, plus parking for the week plus a lunch…  It’s been a while since I worked in London but let’s say £5 a day for food and drink, £5 a day for parking (that’s optimistic) – that’s another £100 totaling £3181.70

On the other hand:-

London to Delhi flight – Virgin Atlantic £488 + £628.68 for boot camp inc. accommodation and food = £1116.68

So, just how are we meant to compete with IT staff coming in from Eastern Europe with the qualification’s, when we have the highest costs of training?

Of course the 20% VAT charge on training in the UK isn’t going to help…..