The UK’s IT sector is a growth industry, already employing one in 20 UK workers. IT employers say they face a skills shortage, but is this youthful industry being its own worst enemy?
At 48, and having worked since graduating, Philip Sadler should be on a comfortable rung of the career ladder. Instead, the IT programmer feels like he’s starting out again.
“Rather than feeling proud of my past achievements I feel hidden, ashamed and embarrassed about my past career,” says Mr Sadler. “I’ve applied to about 35 jobs in the last six weeks alone and I’ve had very little response to be honest.”
Mr Sandler left his job at a large IT services company in 2009 after seeing his colleagues made redundant, and feeling demoralised about his future career when he realised his employer had no intention of training up current staff.
“At the height of the dot com boom, an anecdote went around the industry that it is impossible to teach Java (new technology) to a mainframe Cobol programmer (old technology) – ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’,” says Mr Sadler. “My view is that this comment is symptomatic of the ageist culture within the IT profession, with no value given to the experience of older professionals.”
With nearly 2.7 million people unemployed, competition for jobs is tough in many industries, regardless of job-seekers’ capabilities. However the IT sector is famously lacking the staff to fill its ever expanding sector which contributes about 8.4 per cent of the total UK economy and is set to expand at five times the national average over the next decade. There are 105,000 vacancies in ICT, according to e-skills, and with only 30,000 computer science graduates recorded in 2009/2010, it will take some time before new staff are trained to fill the gap.
Despite the fact that employers have skills shortages right now, jobs sit empty, projects don’t get done, because they have this bias against older people. They don’t see an opportunity to re-skill and get ten years work out of them. Jeff Brooks, REC Technology chairman
The focus on solving the problem has so far been on education, with new reports and research recommending changes in the way IT is taught to help fill the gap with the next generation. Top IT companies say they need professionals to fill increasingly complex top level posts, and with a new skill set – for example, data analytics – to succeed. But could companies find some of the staff they need among the group of nearly 40,000 unemployed IT professionals in the UK, many of whom are older?
They may be able to, but it is difficult to convince employers that older staff will be able to fit the bill, Jeff Brooks, chairman of REC Technology, the trade body for the IT and Comms recruitment, told Channel 4 News.
“I think there is a trend that older workers are not being invited for interview,” he says. “I do know of people in their early 60s, who have real skills to offer, who can’t find a contract or a permanent role.”
From the job-seeker’s point of view, he is “confident” that some knock ten or 15 years off their CV.
“Despite the fact that employers have skills shortages right now, jobs sit empty, projects don’t get done, because they have this bias against older people,” says Mr Brooks. “They don’t see an opportunity to re-skill and get ten years work out of them.”
So why are companies reluctant to hire older employees, or provide training for existing mature staff? Of course some do, including IBM, who told Channel 4 News that each of their 20,000 UK staff (and 400,000 worldwide) has access to thousands of internal e-learning modules and professional development.
“But training is pretty expensive, whatever industry you’re in,” Robin Jones from the Institution of Analysts and Programmers (IAP) told Channel 4 News. “Big companies will do a lot of training in terms of graduate recruitment. Taking on a graduate and taking on somebody older, it will cost them the same.”
On top of the expense of any training, there is a perception that older workers are less able to fit with the rapid pace of change. “Some HR departments might regard older people as less flexible,” adds Mr Jones.
A major factor affecting recruitment in the IT industry is the rapid increase of outsourcing work abroad, especially to India. Recent research from Harvey Nash shows that CIOs are spending a greater percentage of their IT budget on outsourced activity than ever before, and half of UK CIOs intend to increase their spend on outsourcing.
Outsourcing may be a cheap alternative, but it also means that UK staff are failing to get up to date experience, and has led John Harris, vice president of global IT strategy at GlaxoSmithKline to raise concerns: “While outsourcing did bring value, people moved jobs that should not have been moved. We outsourced our skills pipeline.”
We look for people who are adaptable, flexible, and who are interested in continuous education. This is very different to ten years ago. Our employees need to understand and accept that things move at a rate of rapid change. Deborah Richards, IBM
What employers need from staff has changed over the years, according to Deborah Richards from IBM. “We look for people who are adaptable, flexible, and who are interested in continuous education,” she says. “This is very different to ten years ago. Our employees need to understand and accept that things move at a rate of rapid change.”
The IT sector which has only been around since the 70s has always been biased towards the younger worker, says Mr Jones: “now, it’s more to do with perceptions of people’s skills,” he told Channel 4 News. “Things change extremely rapidly, so there is a belief that people can’t keep up. People saying this person can’t possibly know about this, because they learnt that 15 years ago. Which may or may not have truth.”
But whether employers like it or not, the UK population is ageing and older workers will soon be considered employable for longer, with the pension age set to rise to 66 from 2016, and to 68 by 2046. Even if the bright young graduates fill the gaps in the IT and Telecoms sector, they could face the same issue in 15 or 20 years time.
Since leaving work, Mr Sadler and his partner have had to downsize, while he has tried to retrain at home and survive on casual work. But he is still on the hunt for an employer with “loyalty”, who will see his potential for the next 15 years of his working life.
“Employers say that they need people who can code. I can code, I’m good at it, and have written thousands of lines of code in my professional life,” he told Channel 4 News. “New ways of thinking are required, otherwise this cycle will continue to repeat itself for generations to come.”