Chapter 4: A Futile Chore
Footnote: Barriers: What IT Skills Shortage?
Throughout the 1990s, the IT industry has suffered an apparently insoluble skills shortage. Incongruously, this has co-existed with a vast population of unemployed people with the very cutting edge skills that are in such high demand. What is keeping them apart?
Britain is traditionally a fertile cradle of invention. Never more so, I believe, than in information technology. Equally traditionally it has the reputation of wasting this vast
national resource only to have other countries cash in on it (notoriously the United States). Again, never more so than in information technology. From where I stand I see no shortage of good products or skills. I just see them pitifully wasted. This was well expressed for engineering in general by Patrick Uden in a Channel 4 Exinox programme: [I hope I have quoted him correctly.]
"It was ingenuity that for almost 200 years underlined the pre-eminence of engineers in Britain and put this nation at the forefront of international industrial innovation
"Today after almost a century of political meddling and management ineptitude, British engineering and ingenuity have to operate a guerrilla war against extinction in the face of short-term finance, inadequate protection and downright establishment ignorance of their importance in a modern society.
"Our population often seems divided into those who do and those who talk: the doers believe the talkers cause all the damage and the talkers believe the doers are incapable of getting on with it without supervision."
- Patrick Uden [Channel 4 Equinox]
Throughout British business, industry & government, a decision to buy an IT product, hire IT skills or invest in an IT project or company is made by one who is normally quite ignorant of the technology thereof. He therefore cannot judge their quality or
suitability by what they are or how they perform. He is also lazy and will not spend time either thinking out and properly specifying what he needs or in combing the marketplace for what would best suit those needs. He wants a quick, safe deal that is of no possible risk to his career or personal reputation.
He therefore casts off the responsibility for making decisions from himself to 'people in general'. He bases his decision on a product's established brand name or advertising dominance. He chooses staff on their conformity to current fads and fashions in IT skills and knowledge. He ranks an IT product or company on its similarity to what he has known of from the past. This way, he feels that his reputation and his investment are safe. One thing is sure, though. It is guaranteed to be totally non-innovatory.
Any true requirement the decision maker may have could almost certainly be fulfilled by what is available or what could be produced. But because he does not specify his true needs, he does not create a demand for them.
On What Criteria?
Large vendors exploit this weakness. They offer very
narrow choices of 'adequate' products which are easy for them to handle. They keep these in front of the customer's eyes constantly by a relentless and powerful advertising and publicity barrage, which only they can afford to sustain. The solid technologically based developer is thus crushed out of sight of his prospective market.
These few dominant vendors thus dictate whose products shall and whose products shall not see the light of day. The criterion for these decisions is always the vendor's short term high-yield profit. This is never what is best for the production base of Britain's IT industry or its customers.
IT Skills Market
Consider the computer skills market as an example. It is practically impossible for anybody over 38 to get a job. In 1987 I had a colleague who spent 25 years in the computer industry, whose state of knowledge was right at the forefront of current technology and whose mind was technically as sharp as a knife. He spent 18 months trying to find work in the computer industry and eventually gave up and started a franchised print shop. What a waste! I and other colleagues are beset with the same difficulties. Some are in jobs far below their abilities.
Practically all companies now seem to put out their staff requirements to agencies. With hi-tech staff, both the personnel people in the requesting company and the search staff in the agency themselves do not have sufficient knowledge of the skills of the people they are handling to make a proper selection. The skill classification systems used by agencies as primary filters are too over-simplistic and thus reject too many suitable prospective staff and let through too many unsuitable ones.
The problem is that employment agencies are businesses. The whole reason for their existence is private profit. For an agency to maximise its profit, it must place as many people in jobs as often as possible at as low a cost as possible. It must therefore concentrate its marketing effort on a few very large customers by wining and dining key management and personnel staff. It must provide people who
earn as much as possible. It must focus its attention on people who are most likely to make another move in as short a time as possible. This way, the agency quickly gets an opportunity to place them again.
Agencies therefore deal only with the young and mobile. It is not in their commercial interest to deal with people my age. And they don't. I have been `on the books' of many contracting agencies since 1976. In fact I have been registered with 243 of them since 1988. Their combined efforts have given me only one 9-month home-based contract. That was in 1976.
A free market is totally ineffective at communicating need and availability.
When the IT industry complains of a skills shortage, it is an artificial shortage created by the fact that it is not in the interest of placement agencies to place experienced technical people who are unlikely to move again. Better to leave the places open for when a highly mobile whiz-kid comes along. And this shows - especially in the unstructured spaghetti some people call software which clearly lacks the mark of guidance of the experienced artisan.
This state of affairs locks the majority of new products and a vast amount of available and relevant IT knowledge & experience out of the market and prevents many worthy IT projects from ever getting off the ground. To try to help solve this problem, I suggest that the following be implemented:
- A source of investment finance to grass-roots innovators should be set up by government. The motive for this must not be the lust for quick, safe high profits. Nor must it be hampered by protective over-cautiousness on the part of the civil servants concerned with safeguarding their careers and personal reputations. Its motive must be a desire to bring to fruition the vast wasted plethora of indigenous British innovation and build a solid base of IT products, services and skills to sustain the future of IT in Britain.
- A national information exchange on which anybody can place their CV or descriptions or their products or services, and which is readily accessible to those directly seeking products and skills. This function is of too great a national importance to be throttled by free-market vested interests.
- A national campaign to instil sound knowledge, true values and courage into the decision makers of industry, or better still, recruit decision makers from the ranks of the technically informed.
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©Feb 1988 Robert John Morton