by Tony Westbrook

Raspberry Pi is just for starters

Mar 19, 20124 mins
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

See also: CIOs remember their first PCs

As 2012 gets into its stride, the IT skills shortage rumbles on as an issue for CIOs as well as the wider business community.

Moves are afoot to try and interest and excite a new generation in the creative power of IT.

Feedback from the industry has finally resulted in a change of approach to one where kids will learn how computers work, not just what they do.

Children are again being offered a more inspirational vision of IT than a GCSE in spreadsheet manipulation. A new GCSE curriculum is based on programming and other creative skills.

It is a profound move, from ICT to computer science.

Underlining this approach, the £22 Raspberry Pi computer has been created in response to the dismal technical skills many school-leavers applying to Cambridge to study computing display.

Raspberry Pi is selling so fastthat both e-commerce and manufacturing can’t keep up. We already know that kids who see simple programming turning into real software are often fired up for more: the UK built a huge video games business on the back of inspiration gained from BBC Basic running on a BBC Micro, after all.

But are these new initiatives too little, too late?

Paul Coby, IT Director of John Lewisand chairman of the CIO board at e-skills UK, the sector skills council for business and information technology, is loaded with shocking data on the decline of IT take-up in schools: a 44 per cent drop in higher education intake between 2001 and 2011; a 53 per cent drop in Computing A-levels taken since 2004; and to top it all off, a woeful gender imbalance with just 8 per cent of ICT A-levels being taken by women.

This is a figure that is drifting downwards in these ‘enlightened’ times.

What all this tells us is that there is no simple solution to the skills shortage, and there is definitely no quick fix, but that we surely need to start with the young.

IT development is a three-course meal of which the Raspberry Pi is simply the starter.

From beginners at school, through targeted college and university courses which deliver relevant thought processes and tangible skills, to the importance of on-the-job training to create fully-skilled and relevant IT workers, there is a full continuum of training which needs to be committed to and co-ordinated.

Coby suggests it is not enough for CIOs to complain that the skills don’t exist.

The oft-quoted issue of a lack of more advanced, skilled candidates is eloquent testament to the systemic failure of our industry to develop existing staff adequately to fill these roles.

The apparent ease of outsourcing hard-won skills to a lower cost offshore location probably has to take some of the blame too.

However, talking to CIOs it is clear that there is willingness to help change this but a concern about the complexity and cost of existing UK vehicles available to help pass on skills and knowledge.

This perception doesn’t seem to square with reality: e-skills is already addressing many specifics, creating programmes aimed at schoolchildren and women graduates, and apprenticeships and in-job development programmes.

It was also closely involved in the new GCSE syllabus.

The range of e-skills’ activity suggests that many of the necessary ingredients are already in place, yet no one seems to know who the chef is.

It’s you: every CIO needs to take time to seek out schools and colleges where they can contribute either as mentors, by starting apprenticeship schemes or by offering internships.

They should already be providing adequate continuing professional development training.

Complaining that others are not coming to them to ask for help, or that converting a senior architect into a chief architect might require some training investment, is really not good enough.

Industry, educators and government all need to take a part in creating a satisfying three-course meal for UK IT. Raspberry Pi is a good first course. But what else is on the menu?

That’s up to you.