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By | SA Mathieson 17th June 2016 08:02

UK's education system blamed for IT jobs going to non-Brits

Middle-class terror of engineering also part of problem

Immigration is an issue swaying electorates around the world, including Britons, who will next week decide whether to leave the European Union and Americans, who will soon decide whether to vote for Donald Trump as president in November. While this is generally assumed to affect low-pay, low-skilled jobs, it can affect those in IT too.

Register commenter Shadow Systems, who lives in central California near Silicon Valley, was working for a telecoms company when it took on someone on a visa to replace him. “They threatened to withhold my severance if I refused to train them, so I had to teach a person that turned out not to know anything beyond ‘buzzword bingo’ (they could talk the talk but couldn't walk the walk) how to do the advanced networking tasks I did on a daily basis,” he writes in an email.

This training took nearly six months, impeded by the visa-holder’s poor English, and even then Shadow Systems says his replacement remained at a basic level.

“Anything complicated or rushed was sure to hit a proverbial wall of uncertainty and confusion. It didn't matter one whit to the 'manglement' in charge, as soon as my boss signed off on their training, I was out on my kiester.”

His boss then asked him to remain available for consultation. “I very nearly gave in to the urge to get arrested for assault.”

It could be argued that while such a process is terrible for locals, it’s great for the visa-holding professionals, who get opportunities and pay far beyond what they could find in their home countries. However, Shadow Systems adds that his former employer eventually replaced the visa-holders with even cheaper staff working remotely overseas.

His former employer isn’t alone: Disney has been accused of sacking US technical staff in favour of outsourcing to HCL, one of several Indian firms that bring in H-1B visa holders to work in the US, and requiring some of those leaving Mickey Mouse jobs to train their replacements.

Twenty-three of the affected staff accused the firm of discrimination through complaints filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Earlier this year, the US introduced new surcharges for firms with more than 50 staff where at least half the employees are working on visas.

Doing this would be harder in the UK, as the Tupe regulations on outsourcing require the organisations doing the outsourcing to transfer the staff as well as the work. However, British readers commenting on El Reg’s Brexit coverage have similar complaints to those from Shadow Systems here, here and here.

British employers wanting to take on staff from outside the European Economic Area and Switzerland have to jump through a lot of hoops. With some exceptions, the tier 2 visa required is available for graduate-level jobs that earn at least £20,800, with a higher rate of £24,800 for short-term intra-company transfers. Employers are meant to show they cannot find anyone suitable within Europe, and there is a higher qualifying salary of £35,000 after five years.

If the UK votes to stay in the European Union on 23 June – or if it votes to leave but accepts freedom of movement to retain access to the EU’s single market – most European passport-holders will continue to be allowed to work in Britain without restrictions.

Carlos Vargas-Silva, senior researcher at the University of Oxford Migration Observatory, says this has an effect on wages, but adds: “It’s mostly at the lower end where we see the impact. Those who are more affected are those who are competing directly with migrants for jobs. If you’re a construction worker competing directly with migrants, it’s a bad thing for you.”

Immigration tends to help highly skilled workers such as those in IT. “For the most part, migration of highly skilled workers – because it’s so limited, so controlled and so difficult – is not going to have an impact on your career or your job,” Vargas-Silva says. Meanwhile, low-skilled migration keeps down the cost of services that let highly skilled people do more paid work: “If you have more workers to work as nannies to take care of your children, it means you can spend more time at the office,” he says.

Those staffing UK IT departments talk about immigrants as essential in filling positions, rather than a money-saving technique. “We’re not training and educating enough people in this country in core technical areas,” says Adam Hale, chief executive of HR cloud service Fairsail, which employs techies from several EU countries.

Some employers blame universities for not turning out enough employment-ready graduates. But David Bowers, programme director at the Open University’s department of computing and communication, says a degree has to prepare students for life beyond their first job: “The key is that they have skills that will enable them to be useful in two years, five years, 10 years’ time, because then they have the basic grounding and the ability to adapt and learn throughout their careers,” he says.

Furthermore, the IT industry has diverse requirements. “We’re expected to do a one-size-fits-all approach for an industry where one size does not fit all,” adds senior lecturer in networking Andrew Smith.

And the techie shortfall starts well before university. According to provisional figures from Ofqual, 5,750 people are sitting computing A-level in England this year, up from 3,490 in 2013. But the subject remains a minnow compared with the 10,070 taking ICT (using computers rather than programming them), 10,390 doing physical education and 85,980 taking the most popular subject: mathematics. Eight per cent of those taking A-level computing were female.

Adam Hale says there should be 10 times as many candidates for A-level computing, and 50 times as many female ones. “If we’re really serious about it, I’d want to see it in the hundreds of thousands,” he says. “We need a big, hairy audacious goal.” He thinks that pupils have a perception problem with computing, which organisations such as Founders4Schools are just starting to tackle: “Let’s get on with it.”

Eben Upton, co-founder of the child-oriented Raspberry Pi computer, says children need to be inspired at a young age. “There’s a massive shortage of good people, and there’s an oversupply of not particularly good people,” he says. “We can generate people who can turn the handle, but we’re struggling to generate people who can think creatively and problem-solve like an engineer.”

Ideally, a computing degree should provide the theoretical underpinning for several years of enthusiastic teenage programming, he reckons.

Does snobbery put children off messing about with computers? “It does get bandied about as a theory that an engineer is the guy who comes to fix your central heating, and that nice middle-class people don’t aspire for their kids to become [computer] engineers,” says Upton.

But he believes that the bigger problem is simply a lack of exposure to the joys of computing. To tackle this, the Raspberry Pi Foundation set up Code Club, a scheme aimed at 9-to-11-year-olds which now involves more than 61,000 pupils in the UK. Around 40 per cent of participants are girls: “It’s that 9 to 11 window when for some reason in the culture, girls start to drop out,” says Upton. “They’re at a point when they’re often outperforming the boys and somehow in their minds they go, ‘this isn’t for me’.”

Persuading more schoolchildren, especially girls, to try programming could eventually fill IT skills gaps in Britain, the US and other countries. Until that happens, and despite the cost-cutting sharp practices of some firms, employers will continue to clamour for immigrant staff to make up the numbers. ®

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