The IT skills gap is in the news again with the usual points being made about the lack of suitably qualified people to take up positions in the IT sector. This has been pointed out repeatedly over the last decade and still the gap remains. In a previous post I suggested that there was a genuine demographic difficulty with trying to bridge the gap. Work in the technology industries is often intellectually demanding and in a population where many of the best and the brightest enter the traditional professions (and why not given the rewards?), the actual pool of very bright students is quite small. Software engineering is not easy and if we want to be world leaders in hi-tech sectors, we need the best and brightest working in those sectors.
But it is not only in this context that the lack of a computer science subject at second level is baffling. It should have been introduced years ago. It is hard to make a philosophical argument, in my view, as to why computer science should not be introduced to second level. Yes, there are lots of practical difficulties, not least being the likely lack of adequately qualified teachers. But, in a highly technological world, it would be a shame if youngsters did not have some appreciation of what lies ‘under the hood’ of so many of the devices that surround us these days. Indeed, an awful lot of what we teach, even at third level, is done not so much because the student will directly use the material in their careers but because it will give them a deeper understanding and appreciation of the subject. For example, in chemical engineering, undergraduates learn a lot of quite sophisticated chemical thermodynamics despite the fact that most practicing engineers will never use it again. But it is felt that studying this and other subjects at a deeper level than is technically necessary will ultimately enhance the professional competence of the graduate engineer.
In fact, the more one thinks about it, the more bizarre it is that in the 21st century youngsters get no formal education in computer science before they leave school. One would have to suspect that it is, in some part, due to the fact that very few senior people in government and the public service, those driving policy in other words, have backgrounds in science and engineering. Or maybe, it’s just a cost thing and the thought of equipping schools with modern computers is too much to contemplate.
But going back to the original motivation for this post, namely the ongoing IT skills gap, I wonder has anyone considered the following pretty fundamental question: “Is it sensible to make hi-tech IT industries a cornerstone of our industrial development policy?” Is that too stupid a question to ask?