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Digital Action Plan: Is IT sector growth sustainable?

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Rebecca Kincade on June 19, 2014 - 7:59 am in In Depth

A new , launched last week, came forth in a wave of ministerial support but Rebecca Kincade asks if this plan is sustainable when the IT sector is already facing a skills shortage.

When Momentum, the group behind the Digital Action Plan and representative body for the Northern Ireland digital sector, unveiled their ambitious intentions to encourage more IT companies to set up business here, I mentally scrolled back to a conversation I had not long ago with Neil Corrigan, IT recruitment specialist, . He made his feelings very clear that the current skills shortage is already ‘frustrating the IT sector’.

Mr Corrigan said: “At the moment we are seeing a push for specific engineers from clients. Requirements for people experienced in Java, C#, PHP, Ruby on Rails, to name but a few, are paramount for several clients recruiting within the IT sector in Northern Ireland. The shortage of available candidates is already proving frustrating for some employers.”

The plan aims to create 20,000 jobs over the next five years with the vision for Northern Ireland to be “renowned internationally as a ‘world leader’ in the provision of digital technologies and services, where global companies can leverage, employ and invest in the brightest talent base available”.

Running dry

There is no doubt that our local talent pool has been sufficient to attract in global companies to date, but is this pool beginning to run dry? Not only have we heard concerns from those within the sector, but this has now been further compounded in recent months with a wave of large scale job announcements, not least of all yesterday’s 100 new positions from CVS Caremark Corporation.

In his foreword to the Digital Action Plan, Rob McConnell, chairman, Momentum, said: “Why push so hard, when, by our own admission, things have gone well, and the sector has grown so fast? Upon becoming chairman of Momentum, I shared with my colleagues a number of concerns which have since been echoed from within the sector:

• Success is evident, but can we guarantee that it will continue, given the highly competitive global landscape? What can NI offer that other regions cannot? Is this vision clear, and are the global opportunities known?

• How can we ensure that we do not miss the opportunity and jeopardise our current position by failing to address the skills shortage in time?

• How do we ensure that the attraction of Foreign Direct Investment businesses (FDIs), which are to be hugely welcomed, is blended with the growth of the indigenous sector?”

The plan outlines a summary of four areas crossing over through support, collaboration, representation and funded projects. It aims to promote computing careers to school children, find international, national and local partnerships, up-skill the existing workforce and ‘attract in’ and ‘attract back’ talent.

Ambitious targets

But will this be enough? Recruitment experts Hays has welcomed the action plan and stressed the need for a firmer focus on education and more flexible recruitment demands to ensure skills are available in the longer term to meet the ambitious targets set out by the strategy. The company also welcomed Stormont’s backing for the Momentum Digital Sector Action Plan.

Roisin Byrne, director at Hays IT Northern Ireland, said: “Meeting the demand for skills within the IT sector is one of the biggest challenges facing the local economy. The Digital Action Plan is a much-needed contribution and is all the more encouraging given that it has the support of the Stormont Executive.

“Northern Ireland is not unique insofar as it is experiencing a skills gap in IT-related roles. In the near term, conversion courses geared towards retraining the current workforce can have a positive impact, but are not a complete solution. Therefore we need to look at skilled immigration and drawing in expertise from around the world to meet existing demand. For example, Australia’s immigration model is one we should aspire to. However, in order to do this effectively Northern Ireland must sell itself internationally as an attractive location for high-skilled labour – an issue recognised within the action plan.

“Over the longer term, the Digital Action Plan has rightly identified the vital role of education and learning hard skills such as coding from an early age. Initiatives such as CoderDojo – an organisation which Hays is partnering with throughout Ireland – are already doing great work but it will be vital to see these skills formalised within the education system.

The role of businesses

Ms Byrne continued: “Whilst Government and education can play a vital role, so can individual businesses themselves. We know at first-hand that some employers request very specific skillsets in their job specifications that simply can’t be found in Northern Ireland or abroad. It would be more efficient and cost effective to bring in a less qualified employee and train them accordingly. We have observed that other companies who have followed this model are reaping the benefits.”

Concluding she said: “The aim of adding 20,000 IT professionals to the Northern Ireland economy by 2018 is ambitious, but we wholeheartedly support the goals. The ambitious goals associated with the Digital Action Plan will not only serve to galvanise the industry within the region but will also send a powerful message to potential investors that Northern Ireland is doing what it can to address their needs.”

It is apparent from the Digital Action Plan that our current skills shortage is playing heavily on the minds of the IT sector. While it is promising to see such well-supported action being taken to address this situation, only time will tell as to how effective this strategy will be in sustaining and growing an industry that is already feeling the pressure.



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