U.K. IT Employment Paradox Raises Questions

U.K. is adding jobs at a fast clip, despite its overall economic sluggishness. Why, then, are IT hiring numbers so unimpressive?
2012 Salary Survey: 12 Career Insights
2012 Salary Survey: 12 Career Insights
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Even as experts gloomily predict the fragile U.K. economy is set for a return to negative growth, an on-going bright spot remains: employment.

For example, this week high-profile recruiter Reed released data that showed the country's jobs market grew for its third consecutive year -- and is in a healthier position now than it was in 2011. Bright spots include the social care, education and health and medicine sectors, while in London's financial center, new job openings trebled in the past month after hitting their lowest number since before the 2007-08 credit crunch.

IT employment is a different story. Despite welcome news such as the announcement earlier this month that Google's U.K. arm will create a possible 100 new jobs at its new digital media development center in London's Silicon Roundabout, there seems to be no immediate upturn.

[ The gap between tech skills and what companies want is a San Francisco problem, too. Read How To Close The IT Skills Gap. ]

At first glance, the problem appears to be one of lack of skilled workers. For example, E-skills UK, a quasi-official U.K. IT industry body that publishes on skills and training issues, says shortages were reported by 3% of recruiters who responded to its 2010 E-skills UK employer survey. A January study from specialist recruiter Randstad Technologies predicted the U.K. might face a shortfall of 33,000 technology workers by 2050, as employers struggle to find talent due to lack of applicants with the right skills, an aging workforce and increasingly tight migration policy.

And yet U.K. computer science graduates say they can't get into the industry they have prepared for. The latest official figures show that 12.7% of 2010-11 computer science grads were still unemployed six months later.

Andrew Horne
Andrew Horne, managing director at CEB

There seems a strange imbalance at play here -- but what is causing it? One factor that might be having an impact on IT recruitment in the U.K. is what some are labeling "gray power." Financier Citi's U.K. arm released analysis this week that suggests in the past 10 years, over-50s were accountable for more than 90% of hires and that this age group is responsible for all of the net gain in employment since the credit crunch in the U.K. Other data supports the idea that young workers face enormous pressures in getting a foot in the door, say economists.

To succeed in tech now, graduates need a broad base of skills, both technical and business, said Andrew Horne, managing director at CEB (formerly the Corporate Executive Board), a membership-based advisory organization that works with business leaders. And even then, it's preferable that they already have some experience under their belt. Horne said he tells businesses that "the chances are the people you want are already working for someone else -- where they're probably doing very well. Your problem is getting them to come and join you."

To get those kinds of people to take a risk and leave their niches, he said, CIOs need to work with HR to ensure managers understand the aspirations of their staff and that they put an emphasis on the future career opportunities available in the organization. For example, he said, one CIO he works with dedicates time in her quarterly leadership team meetings to review the aspirations of promising staff members, while each of her direct reports has to identify and profile at least one member of their team. "They are expected to know about the staff member's skills and aspirations," he said.

Once young IT professionals do get a foot in the door, they gravitate toward progressive companies, said Horne. "For 20-something employees in IT, the top five most powerful attraction drivers are work-life balance, compensation, respect, stability, and future career opportunities," he said. "The evidence is that offering the chance for young workers to work with new technology, by itself, does not matter much -- but if that technology enables a better work-life balance, it becomes important."

The good news for employers, said Horne, is that these are the top five drivers for employees of any age. This means that it is more important for IT to get these five things right than to try to create a differentiated employment value proposition for young talent.

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