Population changes in Europe and the UK have resulted in an ageing workforce and a declining pool of younger talent, according to the Professional Contractors Group (PCG).

In spite of this, and new legislation coming into force from October 2006, ageism is still rife in the work place. In the IT sector, this has been the driver for many a newly redundant person to turn to contracting.

In the fast-moving world of IT the importance of learning new skills is all too clear, as any contractor who has been 'on the bench' will confirm.

The skills needed to work in IT have fragmented into a huge proliferation of specific and often niche skills; even Cobol, the mainstay of business computing for 20 years, has virtually ceased to be a marketable skill. In a drastic shift towards internet related skills in the last few years, Java, XML and .Net have become the new flavours.

For an IT contractor wanting to maintain his marketability, learning new skills is essential. It makes sense to commit to a programme of continuing professional development (CPD). CPD is the systematic updating and enhancement of skills, knowledge and competence that takes place throughout working life.

Its emphasis on systematic development and the comprehensive identification of learning opportunities provides a framework within which both formal and informal learning activities can be set.

It is incumbent upon a freelance contractor to plan, arrange and fund his own training path, as his clients are unlikely to pay for training courses, or tolerate any significant on-the-job training within the scope of their projects. After all, part of the client’s rationale for engaging a contractor is to acquire immediate access to a competent, trained resource.

A survey undertaken by the PCG in 2003 showed that 66 per cent of respondents thought that training and development was very important and essential to their business, and 76 per cent undertook training in some form.

Veteran freelancer and PCG member Julie Stewart is no stranger to the concept of learning new skills. In 23 years of freelance contracting, she has learnt the importance of being prepared to face new challenges, even at the expense of pay rates.

'I was a Cobol programmer,' she says, 'with an ICL mainframe background. In 1985, I made a conscious decision to do something about my ageing skill set. I chose to take a contract that meant learning new application software and tools, and paid less than the other, more suitable, project on offer.

'Over the next 10 years, with an expanded portfolio of skills, I had greater choice. Since then, I haven’t stopped learning new skills and taking on fresh challenges. Flexibility is the key.'

PCG is a not-for-profit trade association that has informal links with the BCS.