Work Force Shortage Spurs Training Initiatives, Innovations

Work Force Shortage Spurs Training Initiatives, Innovations

By John Makulowich

That most IT professionals and industry observers have known, or at least sensed, over the last few years has finally caught the attention of government at different levels: There is a shortage of skilled technology workers.

Depending on your vantage point, this shortage is reaching crisis proportions. An "extensive information technology worker shortages exist throughout the United States despite aggressive retraining and hiring programs," according to the preliminary findings of a major study conducted by the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.

"Without decisive action now, the shortfall could send the financial prospects of many companies both in and out of the IT industry into a sustained tailspin," stated the ITAA second annual IT work force study. It also found that IT worker shortages are large and growing.

The current "core" IT work force is reported at 3,354,000. This includes programmers, systems analysts and computer engineers. About 10 percent, or 346,000 positions, are open today, noted the study.

As the results and recommendations from the study were released at the National Information Technology Workforce Convocation (http://www.techworkforce.org/), a Jan. 11-13 gathering at the University of California at Berkeley sponsored by ITAA, the university and the U.S. departments of Commerce and Education, politicians were busily joining the bandwagon.

In Virginia, Gov. James Gilmore was gaining the ear of regional business with promises of job training. The initiative was announced at a technology fair held on Jan. 11, part of his week-long inauguration events.

Across the river, Vice President Al Gore was promoting the Clinton administration's latest initiative to fund the training of computer professionals. In making the announcement, Gore's office quoted Labor Department projections that the demand for computer scientists, engineers and systems analysts would double over the next 10 years, an increase of more than 1 million high-skill, high-wage jobs. Today, many employers report difficulty in recruiting enough workers with these skills, administration officials said.

Among the steps proposed by the Clinton administration to meet the looming demand are expanding industry involvement in school-to-work, with the departments of Education and Labor providing up to $6 million in grants for industry groups. The Labor Department would also invest $3 million in demonstration projects to train dislocated workers for high-tech jobs.

In remarks on the work force study posted on Virginia Tech's World Wide Web site, Linda G. Leffel, director of Program Development for the Division of Continuing Education, noted that "the fast pace of changing technology and finding qualified trainers were the two most challenging training issues."

Company in-house training departments and hardware-software vendors are two major sources for training, she said. Other providers of training in order of use are private IT training companies, four-year colleges and universities, and two-year colleges and technical schools.

It is clear that training, especially in the fields aligned with IT, will be big business in the coming years. Figures recently released by the Alexandria, Va.-based American Society for Training & Development revealed that high-technology, at $911, leads in total training expenditure per employee by industry and organization size over a period of one year.

Barriers To Training Workers

Training Challenge
% Strongly
or somewhat
agree
Fast-changing technology
64%
Finding qualified training providers
54%
Employees leave after training
46%
Training budget insufficient
36%
Source: Information Technology Association of America

Perhaps that is what is attracting the ilk of Michael Milken, the former junk-bond king who spent time in jail in the early 1990s, and his training company, Knowledge Universe. Started in early 1996 by Milken, Oracle CEO Lawrence Ellison and Milken's brother Lowell with $500 million, the Burlingame, Calif.-based firm offers high-tech training and is reportedly moving into the education products market.

Knowledge Universe has majority interests in seven computer training companies, six of them in the United Kingdom, according to company information from Hoover's Inc., Austin, Texas. The largest is CRT and the sole U.S. firm is Productivity Point International based in Plantation, Fla. Knowledge Universe also owns Symmetrix, a Boston-based technology consulting company.

High-Tech Solutions

While a host of questions are raised in any discussion of training, one of the trends is the move to computer-based training or CBT. A company on the cutting edge of technology here is C2 Multimedia Inc., Falls Church, Va., a participant in the Small Business Administration's 8(a) program that was founded in 1989 to improve work force productivity.

Its projects include work in distance learning, performance management, work force productivity and instructional systems development. It is now in negotiations with the U.S. Navy to produce a course on digital video disk.

According to Curtis Cox, president of the company, when he and Dolly Oberoi,
the CEO, started the company in 1989, training was basically stand-up and paper-based. Now it involves CD-ROM, DVD and multimedia.

"With the evolution of new policies and procedures in the federal agencies and an increasing concern with budget, the approach to training has shifted. About 85 percent of what we do now is electronic training and satellite-based. That includes interactive video teletraining, where you have a two-way audio interaction and one-way video," explains Cox.

Presently, electronic training is parsed into three levels. The first consists of text and graphics, much like you might see on a passive hypertext markup language World Wide Web site. The second is text, graphics and pictures; the third level is all that plus digital video and a large dose of interactivity. There's even talk now among training professionals of a level four, which includes DVD and VRML, or virtual reality modeling language, the programming structure for 3-D.

"The work for the Navy is being done on DVD, which can handle up to 5 gigabytes versus CD-ROM at 650 megabytes," says Cox. "The Navy realized that by the time the product was completed, if it were done on CD-ROM, it would be out of date. Since the work is for the Naval Health Science Group, there was a need for clear pictures and the higher fidelity that DVD allows. DVD also offers room for eight separate audio tracks, so the quality is enhanced there as well."

DVD is a mixed blessing for Cox and points up the challenges in his work. They include the moving target of hardware and the need to contain costs. Speaking with him, you begin to wonder where the dividing line is with a high-technology training company and a full-blown Hollywood movie studio.

Sources of Training

Training Source
% Often
or Sometimes
Company training department
76%
Hardware/software training vendors
74%
Private IT training companies
62%
Four-year colleges and universities
53%
Two-year colleges and technical schools
47%
Source: Information Technology Association of America
"Yes, when we are doing training, we hire professionals across the board, as actors, to do voice-overs, to make presentations," says Cox. "It's been shown that CBT is quite effective. The Navy has a lot of good data on training to support these projects."

Cox is quick to point out that CBT will not replace face-to-face training or the stand-up lecture style. However, used in the right circumstances, it can be more effective and efficient. For example, where there are heavy doses of theory, CBT can be an effective delivery mechanism. Where practical application and hands-on are important, it takes a back seat to one-on-one or face-to-face instruction.

"With the theory delivered by CBT, there are a number of advantages. Students can pretest out and focus on areas where they need improvement. Also, at remote sites, such as on board a ship, CBT can be used both for instruction and as a refresher," explains Cox.

And the price of all this? The industry figure, according to Cox, is about $3,000 a finished minute, that is, around $50,000 to $60,000 for a 20-minute production. For films over 20 minutes, prices vary.

Big Picture

When you turn to the big picture for IT training, you find a change in approach to the field, exemplified by a firm like Global Knowledge Network Inc., Waltham, Mass., which ranks among the largest independent IT training companies in the world. It has 70 training sites in 38 countries and 15 training centers in the United States and claims to have trained 130,000 students worldwide in the last 12 months.

It recently helped the Finnish Naval Office migrate 650 employees from DOS terminal systems to Windows PCs with Web access and the latest Microsoft Office applications.

Privately held and owned by the New York investment firm of Welsh, Carson, Anderson and Stowe, the company said it expected revenues of $200 million in 1997. Currently, the company delivers its training through lecture and labs, self-paced multimedia programs, and online or on-demand Internet- and intranet-based programs.

Befitting the industry in which it operates, the firm notes on its Web site that it is "now poised for rapid growth in the services we offer our clients as they migrate to new technologies. We're looking for experienced team members to join our staff of 700 professionals and be part of the excitement as we grow."

For Andrew W. Sadler, vice president of Competus Consulting, Burlington, Mass., a division of Global Knowledge Network, the change in approach covers not just pedagogy, but also economics.

"For a long time people asked, 'What training do we need to provide?' and focused on the subject matter. Now we are turning our attention to the issues of what are the required competencies to do the job. We are looking now at a much broader picture. For us, competence means you have the skills, knowledge and behaviors to carry out a project successfully," says Sadler.

While he admits that the holistic approach does not radically alter the end result, that is, a competent professional, the path to achieve that state is shorter and also cheaper, both of which are critical concerns in today's demand-driven IT market.

As an example, Sadler points to the traditional training approach in teaching the use of the Microsoft Office Suite of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Traditionally, there would be an introduction to the specific product, perhaps lasting a day each and then some intermediate classes that might go on for two days. And these courses would be built up on what the product does, rather than what the individual needs.

"Given the overlap in most of the products and our activity-based approach, which stresses the skills the individual needs to get the job done, we can generally reduce the training time," says Sadler.

That activity-based approach is bolstered by a large database of skills that cross different positions and job descriptions. Thus, while there may be obvious differences between the computer scientist and social scientist, they share the need for specific skills to get particular IT jobs done.

He does point out that CBT is not the be-all, end-all of training that some had perceived over the last several years. According to Sadler, many people avoid using CBT for a variety of reasons.

"A large part of the reason why CBT was not used more extensively was due to uncertainty and fear. We found that the best approach to working with CBT is to conduct a small, short training session in which the instructor leads the class and then shows the students where the online training is and how to use it," says Sadler.

AU Innovation

A new program that seems to take Sadler's approach to heart, and even one step further, has just been introduced at American University in Washington. Named the TurnKey Technical Training Program, it seeks to help the metropolitan D.C. region solve its information technology work force shortage.

According to a study completed in 1996 by the Northern Virginia Roundtable, the Washington region not only suffers a shortage of technology workers but also stands behind other technology centers in the number and depth of business and university partnerships.

What's different about this program is its attempt to fill vacancies in local companies with liberal arts graduates trained in specific technical skills such as software programming.

Companies partner with American University to identify a pool of liberal arts graduates and design a training program. The applicants go through the company's standard hiring process, with the group of new hires placed in a training program at the company's work place or on the AU campus.

The guiding light of the program is Patrick Valentine, director of corporate and government education and training at American University, a new position created just four months ago to address the region's work force shortage. He admits that he worked closely with industry to develop the program and make certain it met the demands of today's labor market. He says it is the first of its kind and was built in response to corporate executive concerns.

"As research director of the Northern Virginia Roundtable in 1993, we saw work force issues brewing. While the role of higher education in improving the work force was not on the radar screen of many organizations, it was simply a matter of time. The main question we were trying to address was how could universities help solve the problem of the scarcity of knowledge workers. Basically, can we produce more information technology graduates," says Valentine.

Admitting the reality that it will take years to increase the number of such graduates, Valentine has set ambitious goals for the first year of the new program. He would like to place 250 AU graduates with local companies and put them into training.

He has his sights on other programs as well, for example, building a training program for older Americans. He feels that the model he has set up at AU for IT education and training can be applied to many different situations.

Hard Reality of Legacy Systems

Beyond the innovations and initiatives, there is still the hard reality of legacy systems housed in federal agencies with a large contingent of remote workers. A case in point is the U.S. Customs Service with its 19,000 employees who may need training at some point in their careers with the service. Its mission is to ensure that all goods and persons entering and exiting the United States abide by all U.S. laws and regulations.

Mary Eichelberger, chief of the Training Branch, notes that most of the training is still done on software housed on mainframes and in many cases delivered over dumb terminals.

"Our CBT is based on the mainframe since our network is primarily mainframe. It was implemented about eight years ago. We are looking at some options now to transition to Windows-based CBT," says Eichelberger.

Training for the Customs Service, part of the Treasury Department, is mainly for certification on the use of equipment and systems. One of the packages they use is Phoenix by Pathlore Software, a privately held company based in Columbus, Ohio. It was formed by the management-led buyout of the Information Technology Division of Computer Associates International. According to the company, training constitutes a $52 billion market that is growing at a rate of 38 percent per year.

The Phoenix software package is a comprehensive menu-driven CBT tool that includes authoring, administrative and presentation functions for mainframe and micro environments.

While every Customs Service location has access to the mainframe, Eichelberger is the first to admit that the infrastructure for delivery needs to be improved.

"Our people have been used to CBT for some time now. But the system is still primarily machine driven. We clearly need more of a Windows-type environment, with better graphics that makes training more attractive and interesting for the user. Just now, it is not economically feasible to update and refresh the entire system," says Eichelberger.

On the horizon, however, is better use of satellite broadcast, with more programs and the use of a new television studio to be housed in the Customs Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington.


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