Speech to the Chemistry Club Part 4: The Three Dragons we have to Slay

You may have read some of my previous posts based on my speech to the Chemistry Club, so let’s go back now to the 3 Dragons we have to slay.

IGNORANCE

St George And The Dragon 1456

Here comes Dragon Number 1, breathing fire.  His name is IGNORANCE and his mantra is “IT does not really matter”.

If you accept that technology is fundamental to the competitive success and cost-base of almost all industries in the UK. And that is is also fundamental to how the public sector interacts with us all as citizens and meets its cost and efficiency challenges. Then why is IT something of a ‘second class citizen’ in the UK?

Every IT conference I go to, someone asks “Why aren’t CIOs on the Board?”  Technology is always somewhere on the Government’s policy agenda – but not at the top.  It sometimes seems to me that the “T” in STEM (i.e. “Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths”) is silent.

I was appalled to be given a lecture by an industrial psychologist at a recent business event on how – as a member of the IT profession – “I must get out more and talk to the business”.

That approach made it sound as if I was wearing sandals, flares and a bad haircut. I loved the “IT Crowd” as a show on Channel 4 – but I do recognise that it played (very successfully) on the stereotype of the techie geek.

I just don’t think this kind of conversation about technology happens in Boston, Berkeley, Bangalore or Beijing. As we know, in India and in San Francisco, the heroes are the technology entrepreneurs who have literally transformed their societies, bringing jobs and prosperity to many people.

Two of the founders of the Indian IT industry – who I am pleased and proud to know slightly – are, for instance, engaged in setting up a social security system in the Indian countryside and spreading low-cost mobile banking to farmers.

It should be as unacceptable for a CEO, a Permanent Secretary or a Government Minister to say they do not understand technology as it would be for them to say they can’t read a balance sheet!

INCAPACITY

The Second fire-breathing Dragon’s name is INCAPACITY, particularly in the quality and effectiveness of IT Training and Education.

We are simply not, in the UK, turning out the number of technology graduates and apprentices that we need:

  • employment in the IT industry is growing nearly 5 times faster than the UK average,
  • 1-in-20 members of the UK work-force is now employed in IT, and
  • at e-skills UK we calculate that over 110,000 new IT professionals are needed each year.

BUT look at the numbers for graduates:

  • only 17% of the intake into the IT industry comes directly from education,
  • the proportion of IT professionals under the age of 30 has fallen from 1-in-3 to under 1-in-5,
  • the number of applicants to computing courses in the UK halved between 2001 and 2007 – down from 31,000 to 15,000, (It has now gone up to 17,000, but is still far too low at 1/2 of what it was and 1/3rd of what it needs to be),
  • The proportion of IT graduates unemployed 6 months after graduation is increasing to 14% – double the average, and
  • more disturbingly, of those employed only 45% – less than half – are actually in IT jobs.

The school numbers are equally worrying:

  • students taking technology A Levels have fallen by 60(yes, six-zero)% since 2003,
  • grades for these subjects are significantly lower than the average, and
  • at GCSE level, the number taking IT has fallen by 57% since 2005.

The problem is not just about overall numbers – the male/female imbalance is catastrophic and shameful. Only 15% of computing degree applicants and 9% of computing A Level students are female.

This sounds like a TECH SKILLS SUPPLY CRISIS to me.

What we need is VERY SIMPLE – we need an educational system that does 3 things:

First – we must recognise the importance of IT in nearly every industry, whether its retail or airlines, media or manufacturing, public or private sector.

Second – we need courses – at GCSE, at A level and at Degree level – that produce students who are genuinely inspired and excited about how you can USE IT to really make a difference in their business or department or charity.

Third – we need to attract talented individuals from the OLD industries into the IT industry of the future.

INCONSISTENCY

And, finally, the Third Dragon whose name is INCONSISTENCY: we need a strong voice for IT in the UK.

We have excellent organisations that speak for the IT industry in the UK: BCS, Intellect, e-skillsUK, universities and colleges of further education.  We have excellent allies and supporters in the political and media worlds.

In the UK, we all need to talk confidently and loudly about the importance of Technology  and make our case that excellence in IT and e-skills are today’s successes that will be essential to our future performance in the connected globalised highly competitive World.

So in conclusion I believe that:

  • the UK’s future prosperity and competitiveness depends on us securing a greater share of the World’s high-value-added work,
  • the UK should become a generator of – and magnet for – digital talent and high-value technology-enabled businesses, and
  • we must, in the UK, strive to be a world leader in the development of IT-enabled business solutions.

And, in my view, to do all this we need to slay the 3 Dragons of IGNORANCE, INCAPACITY and INCONSISTENCY.

We will, in my view, in this way generate Prosperity, Growth and Jobs:

  • for IT experts in the UK
  • in other industries throughout the economy, and
  • for people transferring from declining sectors and industries.
Do you recognise these Dragons? And how would you go about slaying them?

About paulcoby
I am CIO at the John Lewis Partnership in the UK. I was Chair of SITA - the airline solutions company owned by the Air Transport Community - for 11 years. I am also on the Boards of Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank and Pets at Home. Previously I was Head of BA Services and for 10 years CIO at British Airways. I am interested in Roman and Military History. The views expressed are entirely my own not my employers.

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