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Tackling Skill Shortages in the Computer Graphics Industry

This was the topic of a meeting of the Computer Suppliers Federation's Computer Graphics Forum on 10 February 1997. I was invited along with others to present the Higher Education case.

The Situation in Industry

Bill Boffin, who chaired the discussions, started off by noting that Bill Gates has stated that the UK is loosing its edge and starting to be eclipsed by developing countries in the software revolution. Is this caused by a lack of skills or investment? It seems to be both. Shortage of skills is a world problem. We see, for example, very high salaries being offered in Hong Kong to attract people. In the UK, 35% of Computer Suppliers Federation members say that skill shortages are impairing growth. Trainee recruitment appears to have collapsed giving a smaller pool of potential employees under the age of 35. This is at a time when 60% of the Federation's members are increasing their numbers of full time staff.

Many companies are employing graduates, and the issue of the day was whether academia is/can/should try and address the skill shortage.

The employment needs found in a recent survey are:

sales and marketing

These figures reflect a need for technically aware staff with good communication skills.

Higher Education - some general issues

Anne Mumford and Steve Maddock presented some general issues relating to the views of Higher Education. Anne noted that the meeting needed to be seen in the broader concerns regarding this issue and the event in the same week entitled "What Employers Really Want from Higher Education".

She noted that there is a recognition of the need to train graduates for work but that this may not mean enabling them to use particular packages which are flavour of the month at the time they graduate. There is, for example, going to be a large demand for Java programmers this year, this could not be envisaged when the curriculum was being designed for the 1997 graduates who will come onto the market this year. Higher Education needs to ensure that the qualities of individuals are developed through their time at university in areas such as:

Employers are often prepared to trade specific short term skill needs to employ the brightest and the best. There is a need for creative people with enthusiasm.

Having said this, there are needs in industry for research and development staff which do need to be addressed as part of courses in this area.

These include:

Anne noted the potential effects of the Dearing Review into Higher Education. The Training and Enterprise Council are about to report to the Dearing Committee and to suggest linking aspects of Higher Education to employability. Links between Higher Education and the workplace need to be strengthened.

It is important to get the right balance as noted in the previous week's Editorial in "The Higher" (31 January):

The whole of Higher Education must not be harnessed to short-term economic needs. If it were, it would loose its ability to provide the sparky people on whom long-term social and economic success depends.

Steve Maddock raised some general points and noted the pressures on universities: to increase access and participation; to become more relevant to industry; and to improve productivity. These pressures are resulting in some fundamental changes to Higher Education, many of which are being addressed as part of the Dearing Review.

Universities work to provide students who have the skills which industry is looking for: teamwork, giving presentations, building robust programs, working with users, the ability to assimilate new technical information.

Anne noted that many institutions and departments have industry panels to advise them. Recruitment to these from SMEs who represent many of the potential employers is not easy and Steve and Anne urged involvement with the aim of influencing course content.

Universities are changing and becoming lifelong centres of learning. Some courses are developing into distance learning courses which may be taken up by employees in company or their own time. Industry needs to consider how their employees can benefit from these changes.

Case Studies

The meeting heard from Michael Ozanne from the Electronic Imaging and Media Communications Unit (EIMC) at the University of Bradford and Steve Maddock from the Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield.

Michael felt that the EIMC was able to offer graduates an exciting programme of studies. They are able to do this in collaboration with their partners (National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, the Bradford and Ilkley Community College and Yorkshire Television) who play an important role in the courses offered. By offering a dynamic course which links in with leading industry and research, they are able to qualify graduates who are able to fill posts in the jobs market.

Steve presented some examples of useful collaboration at Sheffield. At both undergraduate and postgraduate level they have involved industrial partners in setting projects, acting as the supervisor and assessing results. Projects for undergraduates are set by industrial partners and conducted by teams with the winners being awarded a prize. Projects for Masters students are managed and assessed by industrial advisers. Some work may be conducted by video conference. Sheffield are also setting up a part-time distance learning MSc which has a potential worldwide market.

Discussion and Conclusions

Comments were made from those in industry and academia about the poor basic skills of numeracy and literacy in those both entering and leaving university. Industrial participants urged Higher Education to take a more active role in improving these core skills.

It was agreed that job adverts often reflected very short term needs for particular programming or package skills. This did not reflect the real need for open minded able individuals with an ability to learn and take on new ideas.

There was concern from Higher Education participants and from the Central Simulation Facility (CSF) that employers wanted new recruits to meet a particular specification and were not prepared to sink enough resources into training. We need to invest in employees.

It was agreed that the CSF could play a role in encouraging members to get involved in industry panels and in working with departments.

Anne Mumford