The UK IT industry's inflexible working practices and its bias against older workers and women are leading the country into an IT employment crisis, according to a new Cambridge University study.

The findings come from the first part of Workforce Ageing In The New Economy (WANE), an international study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It is led in Europe by Dr Kerry Platman, senior research associate at the University of Cambridge's Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing. Researchers said that current employment trends are clearly unsustainable: while employment of over-45s in IT remains low, far fewer young people are entering into the IT industry.

"The IT industry is going to have to make better use of its existing workforce when they get older," the report said. "It will also have to recruit more widely among women and older workers, or face skill shortages which could see even more IT jobs and activities exported abroad."

The study arrives as employment figures from Silicon Valley paint a downbeat picture for IT employment in that region, with jobs not expected to reach their 2000 levels for another six years.

Women and over-50 workers have played a growing part in the wider workforce, but this trend hasn't made headway in the UK, the study found. And a relative lack of flexible working practices is unlikely to encourage these groups to join the IT industry.

The UK's IT industry is particularly youth-oriented compared with Germany and the Netherlands, also covered in the study. Under-35 workers make up 55 percent of the UK's IT workforce, compared to 48 percent in the Netherlands and 41 percent in Germany. More than 80 percent of UK IT workers are under 45. In the mean time, the number of workers under 25 entering the UK's industry has decreased by nearly half since 1995. In Germany this age group has seen strong growth, probably because of Germany's revamped apprenticeship scheme, researchers said.

Despite the government's efforts to boost the role of women in IT, the profession has remained male-dominated, with women exiting the industry at an alarming rate. From a 1999 high of 100,900 women in UK IT, numbers dropped to 53,700 in 2003, about 12 percent of the total IT workforce, the study found.

The IT industry has remained surprisingly old-fashioned with regard to flexible working, researchers said. Part-time and flexible working arrangements are rare compared with the wider employment landscape, a factor that is likely to play a part in shutting women and older workers out. About a quarter of all UK jobs are part-time, compared to five percent in IT.

Last week, the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group said the tech slump appears to be over, but said it will be years before the region replaces the more than 210,000 jobs lost since 2000. The group said it expects Silicon Valley to add 30,000 IT jobs next year, bringing job totals up to 1.39 million, compared with 1.57 million in 2000. But tech jobs won't reach their 2000 levels until 2010, the group said.