A Sideways Look: IT

(taken from Freedom, February 2012)
The government has announced that it intends to look at information technology training in schools. I’ve worked in IT for some time, for a local authority and three private companies, but I’m of an age that I never had any – my school didn’t get a computer until I left. It is still a welcome move, though there’s no guarantee that the government will get it right. Employers complain that it teaches kids nothing of use in the industry; kids complain it’s boring. Either way, it’s clearly not working.

One of the problems in addressing IT teaching is what is required of it? Is it meant to be training in how to use Microsoft Office? Or in what goes on within the programmes. The former is, in my view, a waste of time. For a start, most kids these days are more computer literate than the adults, because they have grown up with and been immersed in the technology. Picking stuff up as they go along is second nature to anyone young who has had the use of a computer. (It’s not fair on those kids who don’t have access to computers, but there aren’t many.) Teaching Microsoft Office is also a waste of time because by the time the kids being taught get to have a job, the software for a lot of these functions will have changed. And finally, it is a waste because it should be identified and done as on-the-job training when someone is recruited, by the employer.

Teaching underlying methods and principles in IT also begs a question: how much do students need to know to do the job, when IT jobs are effectively all specialisms? Do you need to know about software development to understand servers? Or networks to understand a PC operating system? I think the answer here is probably a smattering at least. It has certainly been an issue for me as someone without formal training that there are gaps in my knowledge. You pick stuff up over the years, but I’ve never felt confident on the networking or hardware side. A lot of the skills needed, such as logic and analysis, problem solving, are applicable to a wide range of activities.

When the government’s initiative was announced, there was a complaint from employers that a lot of university computer science courses are ‘dumbed down’ and they can’t recruit staff with good enough skills. There may well be some courses that are a bit crap, but the main problem is that employers want highly skilled staff for low wages, but the IT market cuts both ways. If you want a web developer, you’re not just competing with other companies in the UK, you’re competing across the world. It took my employer six months to fill a SQL DBA role, because the pay on offer was not enough. In the end they recruited someone young, who is learning; but once they have some more experience they will move on to a better paid job.

If they really want to employ people on lower pay, the trade off might include some training, you know like an apprenticeship used to be. Unfortunately, IT firms are notorious for hardly ever training anyone, and certainly not in a transferable technical skill. They’ll happily make you watch videos on using ladders or the company’s ethos, but assume you will train yourself, in what spare time you have after work.

For all the anti-state rhetoric of employers, it seems they want their cake and eat it. Happy to avoid paying taxes as much as they can; but complaining that state education doesn’t supply them with the right kinds of workers at a price they are willing to pay.

Svartfrosk

(originally published in Freedom, February 2012)