IT sector full of opportunities in difficult times

Bill Gates once said ‘never before in history has innovation offered promise of so much to so many in so short a time’.

This is a fair summation of the growth in technology and in the IT sector in general both in terms of better communication and opportunities for employment.

In Northern Ireland, even in the midst of very difficult economic conditions, there are real and significant opportunities for those who are targeting a career in IT.

But increasingly Northern Ireland SMEs are facing an uphill challenge to find the skilled and appropriately trained young people to fulfil critical roles within the technology and IT sector. It has been our experience that this is preventing expansion within our sector at a time when job creation is so hugely valued.

This issue is being caused by two distinct factors. The first is that a number of larger organisations are capturing all of the local talent meaning that many SMEs are finding it difficult to attract the high level of skill sets which they require to develop their business. These large organisations tend to offer higher salaries and ‘corporate’ cultures that the local SMEs simply can’t compete with. With this vacuum, it has become incumbent on locally based businesses to nurture, grow, develop and ultimately train staff so that they have a depth of knowledge on the critical IT business requirements that can drive SME’s forward.

The second is the effect of the brain drain which is becoming an increasing concern within the technology sector.

A recent assembly question to the minister for employment and learning asked what steps were being taken to better promote opportunities for graduates in the technology sector in order to combat the brain drain of students leaving Northern Ireland.

There is no doubt that this is both a challenging time for SMEs as well as job seekers in Northern Ireland. In 2012, the employment rate in the north remained below the UK average (71.5 per cent) and was the lowest rate among the 12 UK regions.

However, the ICT and technology sector has the potential to create thousands of jobs provided that there are individuals capable of fulfilling the roles and this is where we must start to fill the skills void.

We believe one area that is far from being the panacea but will help to address this burgeoning problem is through the establishment of apprenticeship schemes, something which our business has significantly invested in.

Apprenticeship schemes allow businesses to hand pick suitable graduates that have the aptitude to succeed. It brings them through a programme of further education, developing their customer, business, support and ICT skills as well as honing presentation and event expertise. It also grows them as individuals and charts their long term career choices in the process.

However, this can only be a short-term solution. An initiative from the Department of Employment and Learning targeting the skills strategy for Northern Ireland, which was launched in May 2011, aims to support the vision of the economic strategy and support the executive’s number one priority by facilitating a better educated and more highly skilled workforce that meets the needs of the economy.

Xperience’s managing director Iain O’Kane is a member of the group initiative and will help to steer the strategy.

To turn all of this potential into a reality, we need to have the political will to invest in the IT sector and make the growth of our skills set a priority for everybody. With time we stand to reap the benefits of stronger skilled workforce and an overall reduction in the unemployment figures.