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Feature: IT Training v Time – Getting the Balance Right


In the wake of warnings about a looming IT skills crisis, Jon Buttriss, executive director of Thomson NETg looks at how to make sure IT staff get the training they need, without costing them hours away from work.

IT skills are once again in big demand. According to a November 2004 survey from Gartner and sector skills council, E-Skills, companies are once again investing in IT, after four years of belt tightening.

However, a skills crisis is looming. Gartner found that even though the recovery in the jobs market is still in early stages, more than a third of the 3,200 businesses questioned were having difficulty filling IT vacancies. 75% of these firms were delaying new products and services because of a lack of trained IT staff.

One way of addressing the imminent skills shortage would be for companies to invest in IT certification programmes for existing staff, before recruiting externally. However, to date, some companies have been reticent about sending employees on certification programmes because training time means time away from work, project lags and in the worst case scenarios, project failure.

Although a long-term investment, companies tend to push training aside when faced with tight project deadlines. So what is the answer? How can employees find the optimum balance and provide certification training whilst ensuring successful IT project delivery?

IT Professionals are the least satisfied when it comes to training. According to a survey conducted by research consultancy OCR International, only 47% of them said they were happy with the training they received, compared to 70% of employees in retail and 62% in other industry sectors.

This creates a catch-22 situation. Employers are facing IT skills shortages but are often unwilling to spare skilled staff. Employees are failing to achieve certification which is essential in proving their expertise and securing their long-term professional security. So what is the answer?

One obvious route to reduce the time spent away from the office which is often required with classroom training, is through online training. The employee can undertake training at their own convenience at their desktops, and, it can be scheduled around work projects to ensure minimal interruption to the working day.

However, certification programmes which are undertaken purely online have their downsides. In a classroom environment, the learner has access to subject matter experts who can answer complex questions. This valuable face-to-face interaction is often lost in an online environment, leaving the student on their own having to plough through complex IT manuals, which might not provide the answers they need.

Wading through cumbersome technical books, without direction, might prove overwhelming and demotivating for the student. Furthermore, if online certification relies purely on the self-motivation of the student, training can fall by the wayside when pressing work-related project deadlines hit.

What about practical skills? How can these be attained in an online environment? If a student is to complete certification successfully, it is critical that they can demonstrate their real-world IT skills. Students need to find a way to practice their application development to attain real-skills, and this is no easy task.

In order to address some of these major challenges, companies today should consider an online structured study programme for IT certification. This is a new advanced form of online study which is specifically designed to address both the needs of a busy IT professional, struggling to juggle work priorities with professional training needs and the requirements of the business.

A good online structured study solution will provide users with a personalised online learning plan that monitors and tracks their performance to ensure they are constantly on track and moving towards their certification goal.

It will enable different components of the training programme to be scheduled into a calendar format, integrated into the user’s working week and carefully scheduled around other work commitments. A detailed workflow structure will help motivate the learner, informing them of what training is scheduled at specific times. If they fall behind schedule, there should be a reminder system in place to alert the learner and also the mentor responsible for overseeing the training programme.

Learners undertaking online study programmes should not be left in the dark to fathom complex IT problems on their own. There should be a number of support elements in place to motivate them and help to meet their goals.

Reading materials should be made available online, but the reading should ideally be structured to save time for the learner. This way a learner can be directed to a single chapter or even page of essential reading online that is required for certification, but still have access to other online IT manuals for additional information.

For any certification to be truly successful, it is important that the learner has access to subject matter experts or mentors throughout the course. Ideally, companies need to look for online certification solutions that provide 24x7 access to these experts. Learners should be able to post questions and ask these mentors to explain complex IT problems simply in a way that text books sometimes cannot.

Real-world application is also essential and today, there are structured study solutions available that provide the learner with live laboratories and 24x7 access to real networks, such as a live Windows Server 2003 environment. This allows the learner to safely experiment and apply their new skills. Another way of providing training online is through pre-recorded instructor-led virtual classes which can be viewed by the learner anytime day or night.

Online study has advanced significantly and can today incorporate the best of breed from both traditional classrooms and online study.

If companies opt for structured online study for IT certification they can be confident that they are choosing the fastest route possible to gaining certified staff with minimal downtime or impact upon their business goals.

For the busy IT professional, a structured online environment enables them to be directed and led towards the certification goal, fully supported by online mentors, reading materials and with online practical application to ensure they have real-world skills.


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