Enterprise partnerships needed to fight skills shortage

Sim Ahmed talks to the head of computing department at Unitec about its partnership with IBM

Tertiary education institute Unitec is hoping that its recently announced partnership with IBM to run a delivery centre in Auckland, will go some way to solving local IT skills shortages.

The centre, which is due to open in February 2013, will service IBM’s clients in New Zealand. IBM says it will employ around 400 staff including help desk, technical support, engineers, and delivery specialists. The workers will be based at Unitec’s Mt Albert campus.

The benefit for Unitec is a promise that graduates and students in the institute’s IT courses will be given preference for jobs at the centre. Beyond just the ability for students to earn money, the practical work experience is invaluable for careers in the IT sector says Hossein Sarrafzadeh head of the computing department at Unitec.

“IT is a very applied line of work. We teach strong fundamentals and prepare our students for real world work experience, but there’s nothing as important as having practical experience,” says Sarrafzadeh.

Sarrafzadeh has been in his role at Unitec since 2009; previously he worked as a researcher at Massey University where he helped develop the much lauded virtual intelligence teaching programme Eve.

Sarrafzadeh says conversations he has had with employers suggest there is a reluctance to hire recent IT graduates. Employers prefer those who have some experience in entry level roles. Paradoxically, he adds, without employers willing to give new graduates an entry level role in the first place it leaves the graduates in a catch 22 situation.

“The skills shortage problem isn’t so much that there aren’t enough IT graduates, but there aren’t enough skilled and experienced graduates,” says Sarrafzadeh.

Sarrafzadeh says enterprises need to work more closely with tertiary institutes and make places on their staff lists open for graduates and students. This will result in a stronger IT skills economy in New Zealand as those graduates take their practical skills to new roles.

“This is definitely the way to go forward. The industry needs to help address the shortages that are coming in the future,” says Sarrafzadeh.

“We want to develop a knowledge based economy in New Zealand. To do this we need to keep IT graduates in New Zealand by giving them growth and experience in New Zealand business.”

He says other tertiary institutes should look at the IBM/Unitec model to help prepare their students for the IT workforce.

Starting from next year the IBM delivery centre will play a key part in the IT curriculum at Unitec. Second year students and beyond will have the opportunity to work at the centre in an “earn as you learn” programme. During the time they are not in classes, the students can opt to work part-time at the centre, where their roles will be decided by their particular course and their level of experience.

This will include on-site IT experience with IBM clients, experience which Sarrafzadeh says will be very attractive to IT employers.

In addition IBM is offering scholarships to top students which the company is actively recruiting from the campus, says Sarrafzadeh.

It is not just the IT students that will be working in the centre, Sarrafzadeh says. Students in business and communication courses will also be recruited to support the non-technical aspects of the centre. For all intents and purposes the centre will be a business unit of IBM New Zealand, he says.

The model used at Unitec is based on a similar centre opened at Ballarat University, Australia in 2005. There, Sarrafzadeh says the number of IT students increased from 120 to 1000 in five years. Sarrafzadeh hopes to replicate that success at Unitec.

“IBM is a well known brand, and this partnership will make us more attractive to future students and their parents,” he says.

Asked whether there is a risk that the relationship with IBM will influence the technology frameworks taught in the IT curriculum at Unitec, Sarrafzadeh says the curriculum will remain independent.

“A student who goes through this programme will be getting industry based work experience. The curriculum won’t be an IBM curriculum, but will focus towards hands-on IT,” says Sarrafzadeh.

Sarrafhzadeh says next year’s curriculum has almost been finalised, but still requires internal approval and accreditation.

Once the earn as you learn programme is better embedded, Sarrafzadeh says new tracks of research and training will be offered — with a particular focus on IT security skills which he says are increasingly sought after in the industry.

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