Skill Needed To Support IT Growth

Last week was National Apprenticeship Week. I’m as dubious as most about the fact that there seem to be weeks and days for almost everything – there is even a National Stop Snoring Week. But National Apprenticeship Week raises an important issue – that of skills and how we meet the skills needs now and in the future.

For instance, between 2015 and 2020, there is the potential for total employment in the ICT sector in Northern Ireland to grow by some 15,000 people. That’s according to the Northern Ireland Skills Barometer produced for the Department for Employment and Learning. IT is clearly a fast-growing sector with innovative businesses that are adding value to the economy.

Worryingly though, according to the Skills Barometer, STEM-related subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are the most under-supplied by skills in Northern Ireland, particularly mathematics & computer science and engineering & technology.

This trend reflects the anticipated growth in the ICT, professional services and advanced manufacturing sectors, driving demand for qualifications in computer science and engineering subjects.

Overall, according to the skills barometer, the most acute skills shortage has been identified in medium level skills, which creates a demand for programmes such as higher level apprenticeships. That’s where initiatives like National Apprenticeship Week come in, creating awareness and understanding of the importance of apprenticeships as a way to address skills shortages. In the IT sector, apprenticeships can therefore play a very important role.

For the IT sector, one of the other big challenges in terms of addressing skills is to encouraging more females into the industry. (And yes, there was an International Women’s Day recently too!). Statistics show that less than one in five people employed in the tech sector is female. That compares to almost half of the workforce as a whole being female. When it comes to Computing A-Level, less than one in 10 of all entrants is female.

Businesses in the IT sector in Northern Ireland are going to significant lengths to attract and retain the right skills, including attracting more females into the industry. For us at Novosco, creating the right culture is the key. We place a big focus on health and well-being, work-life balance and personal development. Employees value these things and value employers who prioritise them, as tech companies as a whole tend to do.

But the reality is that at present, a lot of what is happening in the IT sector in Northern Ireland in terms of skills is churn – when new jobs are created, they are to a large extent being filled by people moving from one company to another; it’s not necessarily new people coming into the sector.

Longer-term, things look a bit brighter. We are told that the amount of young people choosing to study IT has been increasing rapidly, which creates a pipeline for the future. There are also positive initiatives happening to encourage more young people into IT, such as the Bring IT On programme and employer-led initiatives.

Government also recognises the problem and is committed to addressing it. As the Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry said recently: “Skills are the key driver of positive economic change, and are also a powerful tool to promote individual opportunity and to achieve greater social inclusion.”

Onwards to National Skills Week later this year.

:: Patrick McAliskey is managing director of Novosco, an indigenous Northern Ireland hybrid cloud company with offices in Belfast, Dublin and Manchester. It works for leading organisations across the UK and Ireland, including many of Northern Ireland’s top companies, UK health trusts, councils and other organisations. It has been ranked one of the top companies to work for in the UK by The Sunday Times.