It might seem ironic to talk about a skills shortage when the economy is flat-lining and there are 2.5 million unemployed people. But my experience at Turbine says different.
I think there is a real skills shortage for the kind of technical skills required to build cutting edge applications like Turbine.
This may be apocryphal, but I heard that each year UK universities graduate more people from acting, film making, creative writing and other practical arts courses than are actually employed, in total, in the whole sector.
At the same time, we seem to produce far too few people with the kind of scientific, technical or programming skills needed in a modern economy. For example, in an 18-month study the Royal Society found that computing was taught badly in UK schools.
There are problems in higher education too with universities failing to teach in-demand skills. The UK produces 46,000 engineering graduates a year but needs 87,000. By some accounts, we produce 30,500 science graduates a year, including computer scientists, as against 100,000 unfilled IT jobs.
Technical skills and human skills
I think the problem is more than a numbers game. When I ran a software company in the nineties, with dozens of programmers on staff, the biggest challenge was not so much finding candidates – even in the boom there were lots of them – but finding people with the technology know-how and the personal skills to operate in a real business.
This year’s hot programming language is next year’s old news so we looked for people who had the initiative to learn new things on their own. Software development is not a job for solitary geniuses – it’s a collaborative activity. So we looked for people who had some experience working on group activities or contributing to open source projects. Universities can do more to develop these essential business and life skills
Build vs. buy?
How do I solve these problems today with Turbine? Instead of hiring people to work in a London office as I did at Intelligent Games, I outsource the development to a fantastic team in Ukraine. They’re highly-motivated, very talented and they have invested in the skills I need to build my application. For example, they are specialists in Ruby on Rails, an in-demand programming language and application framework and they use a technique called extreme programming which involves intensive group collaboration.
While Turbine does web development, design, marketing and support in the UK, we do no programming here at all. There are good development companies in the UK that can do this, but the scarcity of good local talent makes them very expensive.
Can the UK create world-class companies like Google, LinkedIn or Microsoft without also training enough people to work in them? Are we destined to outsource all the hard stuff like building things or writing code to other countries? If I’m exaggerating to make a point, these are important questions and we need better answers.
This post was originally written for Business Daily.