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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

IT Industry Alarmed Over Future Work Force

The IT industry is sending an urgent warning that plans to turn Russia into a high-tech powerhouse will fail unless government and business pay more attention to educating a new generation of specialists.

Ignoring the widening gap between the country's stagnating educational system and the runaway development of the world's information technology sector could threaten not only the country's global competitiveness but also its national security, industry players say.

President Vladimir Putin has pledged to help diversify the country's export base away from natural resources and toward high technology. But even as the government rushes to set up special economic zones for IT companies, there very well may not be enough qualified professionals to staff them.

Although global IT companies operating in Russia are already helping to train the next generation of workers, educators are urging them to do more -- and faster.

"We live at a time when ideas and technologies are changing faster than generations," said Vladimir Kinelyov, director of UNESCO's Institute for Information Technologies in Education in Moscow, speaking at a recent round-table conference.

Five percent of the country's work force, or four times the current ratio, will be employed in IT by 2008, when the industry is set to make up 10 percent of Russia's gross domestic product, or double what it is today, according to government projections.

Whether those workers will command the same skills as their competitors overseas is another question. No more than 10 percent of IT graduates have the skills necessary to begin working right after graduation, according to a recent McKinsey survey of IT managers working in Russia, said Vitaly Klintsov, a partner at the consultancy.

"We need to stop preparing yesterday's professionals," said Yevgeny Butman, chairman of the committee on education and board member of APKIT, an association of computer and IT companies.

"The education system is in crisis," said Vagan Shakhgildyan, president of Moscow Technical University of Communications and Informatics, or MTUCI.

A lack of new blood and top professionals among professors in IT disciplines is jeopardizing the future competitiveness of Russia and its national security, he said.

The gulf between salaries in academia and in business is scaring away the best and the brightest from jobs in education, Shakhgildyan said.

A university professor typically earns a $250 per month, said Vladimir Tikhomirov, rector of Moscow State University of Economics, Statistics and Informatics. To draw qualified IT specialists away from jobs in industry, he said, universities must offer at least $4,000 per month.

Luring young professionals to a teaching career with promises of a $2,000 monthly salary by the time they are in their forties is not going to work, Tikhomirov said.

Salaries in the private sector are rising much faster than salaries in higher education. And growing industry pay only exacerbates the problem, as IT professionals seek additional training to keep up with the demands of the labor market.

The majority of IT professors at Russian universities are older than 50 and are likely to retire soon, said Tikhomirov. Instructors often lack practical experience in cutting-edge technologies.

"Students who've had a chance to work find themselves speaking a different language from their professors," said Andrei Kashutin, managing director of IT Dvizheniye, an association of nearly 7,000 IT students and young industry professionals.

Nevertheless, industry players are still holding out hope for improvement.

"Educational heritage and educational institutions is where Russia's strength lies," said Craig Barrett, board chairman of Intel, the world's No. 1 maker of microchips. "There is still an opportunity to use IT as Russia's next natural resource."

The key, he said, lies in greater awareness by the government and more active involvement by the industry.

The business community is already becoming integrated with the educational process by encouraging investments and new technical skills, said Yevgeny Velikhov, president of Kurchatov Institute, Russia's top nuclear research center.

For example, telecoms equipment company Ericsson has run a training center for clients and employees with MTUCI since 1996. Last year, the center opened its courses to students as well.

Intel has a program for training school teachers and works with the Russian Academy of Sciences to formulate up-to-date university curricula. Sun Microsystems partners with some 20 institutions of higher education in Russia to provide training to students and professors in its Java programming language.

But while many international companies have already opened training centers, MTUCI's Shakhgildyan said there was a great need for more.

"To gain a strong footing in high-tech, [Russia] needs to instill a culture of continuous learning," said Alexander Mikoyan, general director for Russia and Belarus at telecom company Alcatel.

Getting there is a common objective of the global technology giants muscling in on Russia's market.

"We compete for the same human capital," said Sergei Moiseyev, marketing director at Sun Microsystems.

"But when it comes to know-how and technology investments, we develop the market together."