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The IT skills crisis – could tech levels be the answer?

 Richard Brady, Head of Recruitment, GCS Recruitment

The fact that London’s financial services sector is also a hot spot for technology innovation is not news. In 2014, investment in financial technology firms grew by 136 per cent. Earlier this year, George Osborne identified London’s financial technology sector as a particularly bright spot in the recovering economy – not surprising when you consider the transformational effect that information technology continues to have on the industry.

But casting a shadow on this bright spot is a widely recognised skills shortage that is threatening future prosperity of the UK – including that of the city.

Of course, this is not just a threat to financial institutions. A particularly revealing piece of research conducted on behalf of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS) and law firm DLA Piper, shows that the country’s finance chiefs believe that the skills shortage is a bigger threat to growth than the possibility of the UK leaving the EU, the abrupt slowdown in the Chinese economy, government regulation and red tape, and weak consumer confidence. Only the precipitous drop in oil prices was seen as a bigger threat.

Nor is it a problem for the UK alone: estimates suggest that by 2020, there will be a global skills shortage in the essential area of cyber security, estimated at 1.5 million workers. For recruiters working in finance, the already substantial challenge of finding the right candidate with the right skills is just going to get more difficult. Firms like BT are trying to do their bit, in this case by expanding its Barefoot Computing programme to teach crucial IT skills to 400,000 children across the UK by 2016, but no one thinks that we have cracked the looming skills problem yet.

All of which makes it slightly surprising that the new tech levels from the AQA exam board attracted such little comment when they were launched at the beginning of the current academic year.

It’s easy to be cynical about yet another education initiative. Politicians have been promising a revolution in our schools for decades, but it never quite seems to quite taken off. However, positive steps were taken last year, when coding became a mandatory part of the core curriculum for those schools obliged to teach it.

The government has also created a £500,000 fund to develop cyber security skills within universities and colleges, with the goal of helping them to construct innovative teaching methods that develop the skills needed to protect the UK from hackers, malware and other information security threats. There are also plenty of extra-curricular programs like Coder Dojo and Code Club to encourage young people.

But although policy-makers are to be congratulated for putting coding at the heart of computer science in schools, there is more to a career in IT than this specific area, and recruiters are looking for a lot more than just programming abilities. And it is this that makes the new tech levels potentially very interesting.

The seven new tech levels will teach young people about everything from cyber security to IT programming. Already launched are tech levels in design engineering, mechatronic engineering, power-network engineering, IT networking, IT programming and IT user support. Two more – cyber security and entertainment technology – are due for launch next year.

This is an excitingly ambitious range of topics that cover some of the important skill-sets that businesses of all kinds frequently ask for. Entertainment technology may not be the most obvious qualification for a bank’s IT department, but like all these courses, it encourages computational thinking and problem-solving in young people – the foundation of any successful technology project.

In effect, these new tech levels take the basic building blocks of information technology out of the box and breathe life into them. Skills such as coding are not an isolated activity, and there is the risk that they become just that unless given context and relevance. In doing so, they offer young people a realistic view of the diversity of careers available in IT, and the extent to which industries like finance will depend on their skills.

Equally interesting is the background to these new qualifications. Vocational in nature, they are on an equal footing with A-levels. But they were developed specifically in response to the Wolf Report of 2011, which said many vocational courses do not help students’ career prospects. From the outset, the tech levels have employability and real-world skills in mind.

As expected, technology companies including Siemens, Microsoft and Toshiba have helped to create the new qualifications. But equally interesting is the involvement of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, suggesting that the tech level modules have taken into account the fact the IT skills are needed in a wide range of contexts. These really could be the fit-for-purpose qualifications that enhance both skills and employability that were so widely called for.

The new tech levels also offer students a path to university. They help close the gap that has existed for too long in British education between academic and vocational studies. Smart students who are interested in any aspect of technology need not have their future education choices restricted or academic ambitions restrained.

The result of this is likely to be twofold. On one hand, we’re likely to see a broader talent pool for all industries to pick from in the future, as more young people select at least one tech level for study. Secondly, there will be a deeper talent pool – as university IT and engineering courses adapt to a more advanced and knowledgeable intake.

AQA believes that employers will start making the tech levels a key qualification for job applicants, because they will guarantee the right knowledge and skills. That’s a big claim to make in their first year, and it remains to be seen whether they can live up to that promise. But the fact that they have been launched at all is an encouraging indicator that the UK is addressing the needs of its future workforce – and their employers. We are quietly optimistic about the new qualifications – and we think the finance industry should be too.


Robinhood plans confidential IPO filing as soon as March – Bloomberg News



Robinhood plans confidential IPO filing as soon as March - Bloomberg News 1

(Reuters) – Online brokerage Robinhood, at the centre of this year’s retail trading frenzy, is planning to file confidentially for an initial public offering as soon as March, Bloomberg News reported late on Friday, citing sources.

The California-based brokerage has held talks in the past week with underwriters about moving forward with a filing within weeks, Bloomberg said.

Robinhood did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reuters reported last year that Robinhood has picked Goldman Sachs Group Inc to lead preparations for an initial public offering which could value it at more than $20 billion.

Robinhood was at the heart of a mania that gripped retail investors in late January following calls on Reddit thread WallStreetBets to trade certain stocks that were being heavily shorted by hedge funds.

The online brokerage tapped around $3.4 billion in funding after its finances were strained due to the massive trading in shares of companies such as GameStop Corp.

(Reporting by Ann Maria Shibu in Bengaluru; editing by Richard Pullin)

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Analysis: How idled car factories super-charged a push for U.S. chip subsidies



Analysis: How idled car factories super-charged a push for U.S. chip subsidies 2

By Stephen Nellis

(Reuters) – When President Joe Biden on Wednesday stood at a lectern holding a microchip and pledged to support $37 billion in federal subsidies for American semiconductor manufacturing, it marked a political breakthrough that happened much more quickly than industry insiders had expected.

For years, chip industry executives and U.S. government officials have been concerned about the slow drift of costly chip factories to Taiwan and Korea. While major American companies such as Qualcomm Inc and Nvidia Corp dominate their fields, they depend on factories abroad to build the chips they design.

As tensions with China heated up last year, U.S. lawmakers authorized manufacturing subsidies as part of an annual military spending bill due to concerns that depending on foreign factories for advanced chips posed national security risks. Yet funding for the subsidies was not guaranteed.

Then came the auto-chip crunch. Ford Motor Co said a lack of chips could slash a fifth of its first-quarter production and General Motors Co cut output across North America.

“It brings home very clearly the message that the semiconductor is really a critical component in a lot of the end products we take for granted,” said Mike Rosa, head of strategic and technical marketing for a group within semiconductor manufacturing toolmaker Applied Materials Inc that sells tools to automotive chip factories.

Within weeks, automakers joined chip companies calling for chip factory subsidies, and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and President Biden both pledged to fight for funding.

Industry backers now aim to be part of a package of legislation to counter China that Schumer hopes to bring to the Senate floor this spring. Still, all agree it will do little to solve the immediate auto-chip problem.

Headlines about idled car plants resonated with the public that had shrugged off abstract warnings in the past, said Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lawmakers, already worried that a promised infrastructure bill will not materialize this year, decided to push for quick solution.

“Nobody wants to be seen as soft on China. No one wants to tell the Ford workers in their district, ‘Sorry, can’t help,'” Lewis said. “It was one of those moments where everything aligned.”

The package includes matching funds for state and local chip-plant subsidies, a provision likely to heat up competition among states including Texas and Arizona to host big new chip plants that can cost as much as $20 billion.

The subsidies could benefit a factory in Arizona proposed by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co and one in Texas eyed by Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, even though those factories would be geared toward high-end chips for smartphones and laptops, rather than simpler auto chips. And those factories would not come on line until 2023 or 2024, according to plans disclosed by the companies, the world’s two largest chip manufacturers.

In the longer term, a raft of U.S. companies are also poised to benefit. Any chipmakers that build factories will source many tools from American companies such as Applied, Lam Research Corp and KLA Corp.

Intel Corp, Micron Technology Inc and GlobalFoundries – which already have U.S. factory networks – will also likely benefit.

Smaller, specialty chip factories also could benefit.

“The recent chip shortage in the automotive industry has highlighted the need to strengthen the microelectronics supply chain in the U.S.,” said Thomas Sonderman, chief executive of SkyWater Technology, a Minnesota-based chipmaker that makes automotive and defense chips. “We believe that SkyWater is uniquely positioned due to our differentiated business model and status as a U.S.- owned and U.S.- operated pure play semiconductor contract manufacturer.”

Even with subsidies, the U.S. companies still must compete with low-cost Asian vendors over the long run, and the immediate auto chip troubles will probably persist.

Surya Iyer, a vice president at Minnesota-based Polar Semiconductor, which makes chips for automakers, said his factory is booked beyond capacity and has started to speed some orders up while slowing others down, to meet automakers’ needs as best it can.

“We are expecting this level of demand to continue at least for the next 12 months, maybe even longer,” he said.

(This story has been refiled to add attribution to quote in paragraph 9, add dropped words in paragraphs 10 and 17)

(Reporting by Stephen Nellis and Hyunjoo Jin in San Francisco and Alexandra Alper in Washington. Editing by Jonathan Weber and David Gregorio)

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Atlantia disappointed with CDP bid for unit, continues talks



Atlantia disappointed with CDP bid for unit, continues talks 3

By Francesca Landini and Stephen Jewkes

MILAN (Reuters) – Italy’s Atlantia said on Friday an offer by a consortium of investors led by state lender CDP for its 88% stake in Autostrade per l’Italia fell short of the mark and asked its top managers to see if the bid could be sweetened.

“The offer falls below expectations,” the Italian infrastructure group said in a statement, adding it had mandated the chief executive and the chairman to assess “the potential for the necessary substantial improvements” to the bid.

Italian state lender CDP, together with co-investors Macquarie and Blackstone, has presented a proposal valuing all of Autostrade per l’Italia at 9.1 billion euros ($11 billion).

The consortium also requested Atlantia guarantee up to 700 million euros in potential damage claims and another roughly 800 million euros for a pending legal case, making the bid less attractive than previously expected.

One source said the consortium estimated overall pending legal claims against Autostrade at 3 billion to 4 billion euros, adding the 700 million euro cap did not mean the amount would be detracted from the offer price from the start.

Earlier on Friday Atlantia’s minority investors TCI and Spinecap had called on Atlantia’s board to reject the offer, saying it undervalued the asset.

“No deal is better than a bad deal, especially a bad deal and a wrong price,” TCI Advisory Services partner Jonathan Amouyal said in a emailed comment to Reuters.

TCI, which holds an indirect stake of around 10% in Atlantia, repeated that the value for 100% of Autostrade should be no less than 12.5 billion euros.

The board will hold a further meeting in order to take a final decision on the offer in due time, Atlantia said.

The negotiations between Atlantia and the CDP-led consortium are part of an effort to end a political dispute over Autostrade’s motorway concession triggered by the collapse of a motorway bridge run by the unit.

(GRAPHIC – Atlantia share performance:

The bid expires on March 16, but the deadline could be extended in case Atlantia calls an extraordinary shareholders meeting (EGM) on the issue, according to one source with knowledge of the matter.

Shares in the group ended down 0,7%, after recovering some losses, as investors waited for the decision of the board.

Atlantia, which is controlled by the Benetton family, owns 88% of Autostrade, with Germany’s Allianz and funds DIF, EDF Invest and China’s Silk Road Fund holding the rest.

The group also kept open an alternative plan to demerge and sell its stake in Autostrade per l’Italia unit and called an EGM on March 29 to extend to end-July a deadline for offers for the demerged stake.

(Additional reporting by Stefano Bernabei, editing by Louise Heavens and Steve Orlofsky)

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