By James Murray
19 Mar 2007
While UK politicians and business leaders continue to voice concerns
over the current shortage of skilled IT professionals far less attention
has been granted to the equally serious problem posed by a deficiency of
basic IT skills amongst the general workforce.
It may not seem like a top priority to IT chiefs who are struggling to
fill vacancies in their IT department, but according to several reports
a dearth of IT capabilities in the general workforce is doing almost as
much damage to productivity and competitiveness as a lack of qualified
A survey last year of over 74,000 employers from the Learning and Skills
Council found that 13 percent of applicants across all vacancies where
firms have identified skills shortages lack general IT user skills.
Meanwhile, a recent study from government and employer-backed IT skills
development body e-skills UK found that UK employers felt they needed to
improve the IT skills of 7.6 million employees out of an IT-using
workforce of 21.5 million.
"It is a major problem," said Martin Harvey director of IT user skills
at e-skills UK. "We have evidence that those with the right IT skills
for their role can save 40 minutes a day compared to those who are less
adept. It may not sound a lot but when you add it up that means a huge
amount of productivity is being lost."
Meanwhile, recent workplace trends such as the shift towards home and
remote working and the movement offshore of many IT support teams
suggest it is becoming ever more important that individual employees
have a mastery of the IT hardware and software they use.
Experts agree that in the short term the best way to tackle this problem
is through increased investment in IT training, and a wide range of
courses and qualifications covering basic IT skills are now available to
help bolster employees' IT skills.
However, with over 640 different IT qualifications available in the UK
selecting the right course can prove extremely tricky, according to
Harvey. " Employers are baffled by this plethora of certificates," he
said. "Even when people have some of the better qualifications like
CLAiT, the European Computer Driving License (ECDL) and the City and
Guilds' E-Quals certificate some employers are uncertain about the
currency of the qualification."
He added that having to put staff through the entire course to gain a
qualification when they may only require knowledge in certain areas also
put many firms off investing in putting employees through such
E-skills is seeking to tackle this problem with its new employer-backed
iTQ qualification, which Harvey said would provide firms with the
ability to tailor the course and exam to suit their needs.
Lauren Frere, product manager at accreditation body OCR, which offers
the iTQ qualification said it provides employees with the ability to
formally certify their working knowledge of IT user skills. "Employers
can customise these qualifications to suit their organisations
particular requirements," she said. "For example, bespoke software, such
as a corporate intranet or existing accounting software can be added...
Practical needs of the business and individuals are [also] met as
learning can take place in bite-sized chunks, and can often be
incorporated into the working day."
However, regardless of the confusion surrounding qualifications some
critics argue that employers are not doing enough to upskill their
staff. "Investment in training is key but many companies have a level of
myopia when it comes to the benefits of training," argued Robert
Chapman, managing director of IT training form The Training Camp. "IT is
the tool that most people use in their jobs and it must hamper
productivity if people arent skilled in using it, but many companies
still see training as a cost rather than an investment, and believe
people will just leave if they train them up."
But Harvey insisted that firms are increasingly aware of the need to
give staff IT training. "Employers are now investing a huge amount," he
said. "One survey found that 58 percent of employers are investing in IT
training making it the most widespread form of workplace training after
mandatory areas like health and safety."
Jeremy Beale, head of e-business policy at the CBI, agreed businesses
are now aware of the value of IT training and argued that at some larger
firms extensive training had even become mandatory. "If you look at BT,
which has a very mature home working policy, staff have to do the [basic
IT] training if they are going to work from home," he said. "That is
sensible practice as it ensures staff get the right skills to drive the
productivity gains you'd expect."
However, he admitted that some firms find delivering IT training to
staff easier than others. "If there is a problem it is in the SME
space," he said. "A lot of smaller companies dont have sufficient
resources for a proper IT department, let alone resources to train up
There is hope, however, that even these cash-strapped firms are
beginning to see the IT literacy of their workforce improve as online
learning technologies and improved user interfaces make it easier than
ever before for users to master applications.
Darren Strange, product manager at Microsoft, said the vendor's latest
version of Office embodied this new generation of user-friendly apps.
"Office 2007 moves away from a scenario where you need to understand
every aspect of the application to get where you want, to a more
results-oriented design that means that if you know what you want it is
far easier to deliver," he said. "We've also invested heavily in an
online resource that offers all kinds of training from bite sized chunks
you can learn in your lunch hour to full training c ourses."
Furthermore the emergence of a new tech-savvy generation of school and
university leavers who have grown up with Google and MySpace leaves some
firms hopeful that the problems posed by computer illiteracy could soon
become a thing of the past. "There is a generational issue here," said
Beale. "Kids coming out of school do find these skills much easier."
However, Chapman argued that that while new user interfaces and the
retirement of the baby boomers may reduce the problem of computer
illiteracy, relatively few people were making full use of the IT at
their fingertips. " There is a contradiction here," he said. "Interfaces
are getting easier to use, but at the same time functionality is getting
richer and richer. As a result more people can make use of Excel for
example, but few are using the full richness of the software and
maximising their productivity."
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