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IT skills shortage reaches alarming levels

"Year of IT" aims to take the mystique out of the sector

(Ex-press)

Switzerland is witnessing a dramatic shortage of information technology professionals, with enrolment in IT courses well below replacement levels for the sector.

The number of young people opting to study IT at a higher education level has dropped by more than half since 2001.

In the coming years there will not be enough new IT professionals to fill the vacancies left by retiring staff, observers warn.

In an effort to address the problem, various players in the Swiss IT sector have joined forces to declare 2008 the "Year of IT".

The aim of the programme is to reverse the negative trend by getting young people interested in the industry again. Events planned for 2008 will also draw attention to the key role played by the sector in the economy and society.

Jürg Stutz, president of the Swiss Association for Information, Communications and Organization Technology (Swico), told swissinfo that the skills shortage problem was not yet a crisis but that is was alarming.

"In the past companies used outsourcing based on the logic that you could do things cheaper abroad. Nowadays we don't have a choice because we don't have the people."

Action

"Since we had the dot com bubble in 2000 there have been bad feelings towards the sector in society and in the marketplace. But now we have to act. If we want to be global leaders we have to get youngsters interested," Stutz said.

The fact that young people are rejecting IT as a career choice can partly be put down to an outdated image problem, according to Christophe Andreae of the Year of IT. "The days of the computer expert isolated in a white room in front of his screen are long gone," he said.

"Now the IT person must be more communicative and needs to have a good understanding of the industry he or she is working for," Andreae added.

"There is also great diversity within IT; you will never do the same job twice. Our goal now is to encourage young people to see IT as an interesting and challenging future."

The Year of IT will be targeting primary schools with a roadshow and other events. "Our young people are behind in some basic know-how. We want to motivate schools to do more," Andreae commented.

Target women

Women are also a target for the organisers because of how under-represented they are in the sector. Female participation varies depending on the speciality but does not rise above 15 per cent.

"There is no reason why more women should not have a career in IT. It has fabulous potential as a flexible, family-friendly job," Andreae pointed out.

Computer knowledge is required in three-quarters of all jobs in Switzerland and the vast majority of households have a computer, yet the IT sector retains a certain mystique.

"If you compare with banks or agriculture it is much easier to see the activity involved. We would like to help the population to understand better what information technology is," Andreae said.

The IT sector in Switzerland makes a valuable contribution to the economy. In banking alone, an estimated SFr 7.5 billion is invested in IT per year.

Switzerland's good standing in global competitiveness is under threat if the ongoing decline in interest in IT is not tackled, according to Andreae.

"We can cover a part of the shortfall with foreign workers but it's not enough and the danger is that we will lose our competitive advantage if we can't create value in IT services."

Stutz put it more bluntly. "If things are left as they are you could say Switzerland will be producing T-shirts for the Chinese in 40 years time."

swissinfo, Clare O'Dea

Key facts

The Year of IT was the brainchild of ICTswitzerland, the umbrella group for Swiss IT and telecoms organisations, the Swiss Association for Information, Communications and Organization Technology, and the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences.

In 2006 only 300 young people opted to study IT at a higher education level after graduating from school, representing a sharp drop from 782 students five years before.

An estimated 120,000 people work in the sector in Switzerland.

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