THE BLOG

Why Tackling the IT Skills Gap Needs to Begin at University

24/04/2013 14:54 BST | Updated 24/06/2013 10:12 BST

The news is saturated with the hardship of young graduates unable to attain jobs in the UK market. If we splice into the numbers of jobless graduates, I'm sure those within IT would find it even harder to get a position in this current jobs market. There are fewer IT positions available and therefore the competition for our graduates is higher.

I'm delighted to see that the European Commission recently launched a grand coalition to address the region's IT skills shortage and we need to do all we can to drive our graduates to the 900,000 IT related roles they predict will be vacant by 2015.

If we don't drive interest in IT the impact on business could be brutal. I'm concerned that graduates may be misguided into taking courses that only heighten the competition to get jobs but are ignoring the potential to really stand out from the crowd by learning critical IT skills that businesses really need.

Many of our back-end infrastructures rely on certain older programming languages that are not going to be retired any time soon. It makes sense for graduates to consider learning these enterprise programming languages as this skill set is one sought after by many of today's top companies.

Recent research with over 100 universities around the world determined how legacy programming languages, such as COBOL, are being taught and found that we still have a long way to go. Nearly three quarter of academics running IT courses at universities do not have COBOL programming as part of their curriculum despite 71% believing that today's business organisations will continue to rely on applications built using the COBOL language for the next 10+ years.

So if the COBOL language is to preserve as expected, where will the talent come from to support this technology? This is scary news when you consider that COBOL currently supports more than 70% of all business data processing functions and the COBOL language is present within 85% of the world business applications today.

Whilst more than half of the academics said they believed COBOL programming should be on their curriculum, it doesn't reflect the reality - of the quarter confirming COBOL programming was part of their curriculum; only 18% had made this a curriculum requirement, while the remaining 9% made it an elective component.

As a business professional within this industry, there is more we can do to encourage academics to help guide students into learning enterprise languages such as COBOL. Last year the largest volume of skilled developers introduced to the job market by their academic institutions was Java programmers (32%), followed by C# and C++ programmers (16%). In comparison, only 5 % were COBOL developers.

It appears newer languages are proving to be the popular choice but surely the more language skills a developer learns the better? Having a mixed language capability will increase personal marketability and ultimately employability.

The student perception of languages such as COBOL is that it is considered 'un-cool, outdated or even 'dead'. The current business use and reliance on the COBOL language demonstrates this to be an incorrect position.

So what can we do? Well firstly, we need to better educate students before they select their courses. At the same time, we should increase our academics' knowledge of how these skills relate, once the student is out of university - nearly a third didn't know if the programming skills of their graduates, whatever the language, helped them gain employment. As a COBOL community, we can certainly improve awareness and visibility in this area.

There needs to be greater collaboration between academic universities and the business organisation. By joining forces, these partners can change the shape and impact of the skills crisis. With greater insight into the needs of today's business organisation, academic universities can more accurately shape their curriculum to meet the needs of the business community. Equally, the business community has a partner in facing this challenge and a future talent pool of new development resources.

The answer to the skills challenge requires community-based collaborative effort. Such efforts will bolster academic offerings and market recognition, but also deliver the next generation of developers, needed to meet the business challenges of tomorrow.