A few good men?

The number of students studying IT at tertiary level is declining and nobody seems to know quite what to do about it

What are we going to do about the impending lack of IT staff?

It’s a constant issue in the industry — will we have enough trained staff coming through in the next few years to fulfil demand? The short, blunt answer at the moment is: no, we will not.

There are three trends afoot here. First, the dot com bubble still looms large in many people’s minds. IT has been tarred with the brush that the whole industry is full of snake oil salesmen filling customers’ heads with caviar dreams and none of it is worth a jot.

Unfortunately, in some areas this is true. From Y2K charlatans selling the “ultimate solution” to those goons extolling the Next Big Thing in their PowerPoint demonstrations and all points in between. We have a certain number of what one Computerworld editor once called “flash wankers” who don’t actually deliver on the promise.

That’s bad news for the rest of us, as I’m sure you’re aware, because IT does have a serious role to play and does have a place in both our business world and society at large. The cultural revolution is upon us and IT is at its core. Issues like privacy, copyright, freedom of speech and freedom of association are all up for grabs and it’s happening now because of IT.

Then there’s the globalisation of the industry. No longer are we tied to one company for life. Nor do we all have to work and live in the city we were born in. The downside is that everyone is a labour unit, a piece of corporate capital to be bought and sold like a chattel. The upside is that, in IT in particular, the skill set is in huge demand internationally so you can go where you want and reliably expect to find work.

That’s great for IT professionals, but it means if you’re hiring IT staff you have to compete with the attractions of London, Paris, Stockholm, Beijing, Seattle, Damascus and even Sydney. Kiwis like to travel. We like to have a look around and if someone’s willing to pay us for our efforts, great.

The third trend is perhaps the most interesting and potentially the most tricky. The number of students studying IT at tertiary level is declining and nobody seems to know quite what to do about it. Students are not vying for places at the same rate they were a decade ago. While the number of IT-related courses seems to be increasing exponentially, the number of students coming through the system is in decline.

I spoke a while ago with one of the ministers responsible for the sector and he said it could well be that students can now find IT components of courses embedded within non-IT classes. Designers who want to work with CAD systems don’t need to take computer science any more — it’s part of their design course.

That’s part of it, to be sure, but there’s more at work here. Boys are being rapidly overtaken by girls when it comes to tertiary education. That’s not a bad thing, unless you happen to be a boy wanting to have a professional career of course. But in those traditionally male-dominated areas like IT we’re seeing a decrease in the number of interested students coming through.

Trying to get to students at university is too late — we need to connect with students at high school if not even earlier. These days going to university is a costly business and students tend to undertake their degrees with an expectation of getting a piece of paper and getting out in a hurry.

No, we need to target our recruitment efforts at early high school students and we should be doing it now because it will take a decade before we see any results. That’s too long in this game — we’ll be yesterday’s news by then.

In the meantime, we need to look closely at our immigration policies and at our own attitudes to staff who might have an accent or a different working methodology to our own. The alternative is not having the work done at all, and that’s not an option if we want to be taken seriously.

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Tags globalisationIT studentsIT staff

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