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  • Ian Ritchie : Scottish Business Insider

Fix skills shortages with easy access, well-funded Masters degrees

HEY, WE HAVE A PROBLEM! The economy is booming, employment is strong.

Companies of all sorts are firing on all cylinders, sales are up, profits are up.

So what exactly is the problem? The skills shortage - and it's becoming critical.

Companies of all sorts are experiencing more and more difficulty in recruiting skilled staff, particularly in the ICT (information and communication technology) area.

The modern knowledge economy is crucially dependent on ICT skills to run the various information processing and communication services on which we and our companies all depend. And these ICT graduates are increasingly harder to come by.

Over the last five years new entrants to computer science and IT courses have dropped by 42 per cent. This has taken many universities by surprise and in response several departments have been forced to shrink their provision of computing courses.

And it seems that this undergraduate crisis is more marked in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

Despite the fact that over 75,000 people in Scotland are employed in the ICT industry and that average earnings are second only to the oil and gas sector, for some reason young people do not perceive IT as an attractive career and have been switching away from computer studies.

It is estimated that there are currently over 122,000 job vacancies in the ICT sector throughout the UK.

What's to be done? For one thing, the industry must try harder to communicate the benefits of working in ICT. It always amazes me that young people are so keen to become accountants and lawyers - essentially uncreative careers - instead of gaining the expertise to work in the much more productive, creative areas of systems design and the application of information technologies.

Schools have to work harder to make computing an attractive subject for study.

Unfortunately, many teachers often find that they are trailing behind their pupils - the iPod generation - in their familiarity with new technology. This makes it difficult for them to excite their students with challenging new areas of study.

But does the real answer lie elsewhere?

Most young people have very little idea about their careers when they go to university - it's actually an attractive way of postponing that decision for a while.

However, when the time comes to leave university, most young people then become focused on getting a job and becoming economically active, because they probably have debt to repay and often they want to settle down.

So, it seems to me that we should make it more attractive for them to study for a Masters degree - a conversion course - that will equip them with key ICT development abilities. Such courses have been widely available for years, but they have not been seen as a mainstream way of ensuring an adequate supply of skills.

We need to make it easier for students to do this. We need to give good quality careers advice that identifies and offers such solutions.

And we need to make it economically possible as many students will already be in debt and will require some form of financial support to complete a Masters.

That should be possible. After all, this shortage of key skilled staff is crippling our industries and our economy and we need to find innovative ways of fixing it.

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