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e-Skills - Demand Developments and Challenges

Executive Summary

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December 2009 (PDF, 1 MB)

Key findings at a glance

Company case studies and ICT decision-maker surveys do not indicate a general quantitative shortage of ICT practitioners in 2009/10. The situation could change in the course of the economic recovery; for 2015, analysts anticipate a shortage in the supply of about 8% of demand (IDC/empirica, 2009).

The shortages currently experienced by companies concern very specific skills, according to the case studies carried out for this report. ICT services companies reported a demand for more university graduates with the right mix of skills and competencies for their consulting branches. ICT managers in ICT-using sectors pointed towards a rising demand for ICT systems & process architects and for specialist in developing open source software solutions.

Furthermore, interviewees argued that specific competencies should be paid more attention in the training of ICT practitioners. They pointed to the following areas:

  • Interviewees said that ICT practitioners often lacked communication and presentation skills;
  • Project management skills were seen as very important.
  • For many positions both in ICT services and user companies, ICT practitioners should have a thorough understanding of business processes, which is not always the case;
  • University programmes should include more practical training in standard business software systems.

A general trend emerging from case studies is that skills requirements of user companies and ICT services companies are becoming more and more different. This may need to be reflected in future ICT training curricula.

About this study

This study aims to contribute to a better understanding of current and expected ICT-related skills requirements of companies. This includes "ICT practitioner skills", "ICT user skills" and "e-business skills". The study considers all three dimensions, but focuses on the requirements for ICT practitioners.

The underlying assumption is that e-skills matter for the competitiveness of enterprises and thus represent a relevant factor to create comparative advantage. The study focuses on the demand side, and here on individual companies (case studies). The study explores to what extent companies experience shortages in the supply of ICT professionals, the strategies they use to have the right e-skills in place, and what they see as the main trends in this area.

Data sources

The study is mainly based on the following sources:

  • Company case studies including companies from ICT-using manufacturing sectors and from the ICT services industry.
  • Representative enterprise surveys by Eurostat and the Sectoral e-Business Watch about the demand for different types of ICT-related skills.
  • Results of a forecasting study by IDC / empirica (2009) which estimates the supply and demand of e-skills in Europe in 2010 and 2015 for different scenarios (see References).

The demand for ICT practitioners: mismatches with regard to specific qualifications and competencies

Total aggregate demand

Analysts estimate the total demand for ICT practitioners in the EU in 2010 at about 3.9 million (according to a narrow definition), and at about 4.9 million for a broader definition of practitioners (IDC/empirica, 2009). About 40% of computer professionals and associates -a proxy for "ICT practitioners"- are employed in the ICT services sector itself and 60% in ICT using industries (Eurostat Labour Force Survey 2007).

The economic crisis unfolded its impact on the demand for ICT practitioners and the services of the ICT department quite differently in the case companies. While the majority of companies (both ICT services and user companies) have reduced their ICT budget up to a total recruitment freeze, others reported that the interest in the services of the ICT department (as a means to improve the efficiency and save costs) had increased due to the crisis. e Business units are challenged as companies refocus their strategy from growth back to cost saving.

Skills shortages and mismatches with regard to specific qualifications

Currently, there is no evidence for a general quantitative shortage of ICT practitioner skills in the market. At the aggregate level, demand and supply are roughly in balance. If at all, a shortage is mainly experienced by ICT service providers rather than for ICT using companies.

Looking ahead, however, there are forecasts that the demand for practitioners might increase stronger than supply in the next five years, resulting in a shortage of about 8% of demand (IDC / empirica, 2009).

Even if there is no quantitative shortage, the case studies point towards some shortcomings with regard to specific qualifications and competencies. The main mismatches and gaps experienced by companies are:

  • Soft skills: IT managers said that the importance of "soft skills" was often underestimated. They suggested that communication and presentation skills should be better trained in ICT studies.
  • Project management skills were seen as very important for many ICT practitioners.
  • Consulting skills and know-how in business process design: One of the main challenges for ICT services companies is apparently to find qualified staff for their consulting divisions, rather than for product development (ICT consultants can account for 60% of open positions in ICT service companies). Graduates trained in business process design and in management are particularly rare.

In addition, interviewees mentioned some specific skills where it was difficult to find people and where they expected increasing demand in the future:

  • Open source: interviewees from the ICT using industry reported an increasing demand for practitioners with special skills in open source software development.
  • e-Business software: ICT service providers stressed that it was difficult to find graduates with practical experience and know-how in standard e-business software systems (for their consulting branches).
  • Systems architects: There appears to be a shortage of practitioners with specific qualifications in ICT systems and process architecture. This qualification was seen as increasingly important, in particular for large user companies with their typically complex legacy of ICT systems.

An interviewee from a large ICT service provider said that his company typically could not fill about one in four positions they offered due to mismatches in the qualification profiles of applicants such as those mentioned above.

Finally, an important overall trend clearly emerging from the interviews is that the skills expected from ICT practitioners in ICT using companies are different to those of their colleagues in the ICT services sector. The question arises whether this should be reflected in curricula of ICT studies more than at present.

Recruitment strategies & staff turnover

If companies announce job openings for ICT practitioners externally, they use predominantly online channels such as internet career portals and special IT forums. Traditional ads in print media are hardly used anymore. For special positions, the services of recruitment agencies are sought.

Web 2.0 communication has rising importance for recruiting purposes, even if not yet consistently used. The ICT sector is probably a frontrunner where the "online footprint" of applicants (e.g. their activities in ICT forums) could become an important part of their profile besides the "formal" CV.

The case studies indicate some differences between countries in hiring practices: in some countries, companies focus on hiring university graduates from relevant ICT programmes; in other countries, companies often hire external ICT consultants who have already been working for the company for some time on a specific project.

Salary requests of applicants are currently not experienced as a problem for recruiting new staff. Interviewees broadly agreed that applicants mostly had realistic expectations about their salary. In a vast majority of cases, consequently, qualifications were the crucial issue and not money.

Most of the case companies stressed that they had a very low staff turnover in their ICT units. The number of their job openings for ICT practitioners in 2008 typically corresponded to 5-10% of the total ICT staff employed. However, several of the larger companies interviewed mentioned "demographic change" as an important issue to be considered in human resources and skills planning. They anticipate that a significant number of their ICT staff will retire in the next 5-10 years and are confronted with the challenge to manage the knowledge transfer within the company.

ICT user skills: no major difficulties encountered

While the number of ICT specialists is limited in most companies, many more jobs require computer and software user skills. In most cases, this means operating basic office applications such as text editing and spreadsheet calculation, communication tools (e-mail) and the web. Depending on the department they work in, employees may also be users of specific applications such as the ERP or CRM system or a procurement system, or design tools (CAD/CAM).

In the Sectoral e-Business Watch surveys of 2009, conducted among ICT-decision makers, a majority of the respondents felt that the demands on employees regarding their computer and software skills "have noticeably increased" in the past few years. However, it appears that the vast majority of employees can cope well with the (rising) requirements. Only few respondents said that many employees in their company experienced difficulties in this respect. This was broadly confirmed by the detailed case studies conducted for this study, where ICT user skills were not found to be a problem.

A specific trend and challenge for the future which was mentioned by several interviewees will be to find the right approach and balance in using new web-based communication tools (such as chat and messenger functions) and Web 2.0 applications. This can be a difficult trade off between ensuring the ICT security requirements of a company and not impeding the creativity of employees, particularly the younger ones.

e-Business skills: translating business requirements into ICT solutions

Many large companies have a dedicated e-business manager, often heading a unit within the ICT services department. His or her job is to explore opportunities for using ICT to support the marketing and sales activities of a company. Often they are responsible for developing the functionalities of the company's ERP system and extranet, as these are central platforms for data exchanges with customers and for service provision.

In sharp contrast to most other units within the ICT department where technical ICT skills are central, staff working in e-business units need not have a strictly technical background in an ICT domain. Instead, many have their background in marketing and sales.

Key qualifications for e-business managers are in particular

  • excellent management skills (including project management),
  • a thorough understanding of the company strategy and its operations, and
  • some practical experience with e-business software such as ERP systems.

Typically, however, there are only few positions in a company with this profile, even in large companies.

e-Business departments need people who know how to translate business processes into ICT requirements, in particular in large companies with advanced e-business practices. Interviewees mentioned that they experienced a lack of young talents with these competencies, because graduates with a specialisation in ICT would often lack the understanding of the business context and requirements. Therefore, with a view to ICT training programmes, an interviewee suggested that curricula should place more emphasis on business process design and communication skills. This confirms recommendations made by other interviewees with a view to ICT consultants.

However, the case studies also showed that the requirements differ considerably between companies in dependence on their e-business approaches.


There are some issues emerging from this study that could be considered when revising and enhancing the e-skills policy framework. A central consideration is that the e-skills requirements of ICT-using companies and those of ICT service providers are in many ways quite different, and that this trend will probably be reinforced. Thinking with foresight, it might be useful to consider this dichotomy in an elaborated definition of "ICT practitioners".

  • ICT services companies, when asked about e-skills requirements, make a distinction between ICT consulting and product development. This could also be considered in the framework; the consultants are a "link" between ICT user and service companies.
  • A similar distinction can be made in ICT using industries, where "information managers" (including e-business managers) translate business requirements into ICT solutions, which are then implemented and maintained by the ICT systems units.

Implications for ICT studies at universities

The study results point towards some issues to be considered in the planning of ICT training curricula, in particular at universities:

  • Training of ICT practitioners should properly take into account the importance of "soft skills", notably communication & presentation skills.
  • Evidence indicates demand for (more) university programmes combining the provision of (technical) ICT skills with business and management skills. A thorough understanding of business processes is a particularly relevant competency for many ICT professionals, both in ICT using sectors and in ICT consulting.

Finally, an issue related to ICT training concerns the lack of transparency how different programmes compare to each other (even for graduates with the same degree such as "bachelor"). Human resources managers in ICT services companies said they would appreciate structured information (e.g. on an internet platform) them to assess the qualifications which applicants of specific programmes have acquired during their study. European e-skills policy could consider measures to improve this transparency, e.g. by establishing a portal that provides such overview information.