Trainers respond to skills shortage with innovation

New courses and new ways of delivering them are on the agenda to deliver skilled staff to New Zealand businesses

Skills remain in short supply, with rich pickings available to those who have the right set.

A May 2007 Department of Labour survey showed Auckland had 850 IT vacancies compared with 200 four years ago, with the trend worsening.

Competition for technology workers is driving innovation from both businesses on the hire and from industry training providers, both in the kinds of courses on offer and in the way they are delivered. However, despite a rise in online training, providers report demand for face-to-face training remains strong.

Pay is one way in which firms are attracting staff, but trends are hard to pick, says Tony Clear, PhD supervisor at Auckland University of Technology. One local firm recently had to up its salary rates by $10,000 to attract staff.

Clear reports strong demand for Java in software development and infrastructure; C# and .Net in the Microsoft world, web services and SQL server, Oracle and other database skills, and, in open source, Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP web design and usability skills.

“Business systems analysis, project management, software architecture, systems and network administration, analysis and design, operations service planning, delivery and management and business intelligence are also in demand,” he says.

Matt Whelan, technical director for specialist corporate trainers, the ALC Group, says: “We see governance, security architecture and business continuity management as skills-shortage/high demand areas riding a wave at the moment. Service management (that is, ITIL) is just always in demand here.”

Clear, who has 25 years IT industry experience, blames the skills shortages on US-style “management fads”, seeing IT as a cost to cut, rather than an asset. Firms are too eager to downsize in bad times but that leaves them unable to grow in the good.

Overseas owned corporations often have hiring freezes regardless of local conditions, leaving them to hire contractors. The public sector has also lost its training ethos.

With New Zealand pay rates at least 30% below those in Australia, the US and Britain, many head overseas, particularly those with five years work experience who can prove their value.

Consequently, projects are being deferred, says Clear. Firms import staff from overseas to cope with peaks. “Or the jobs are simply being done badly,” he says.

Training provider Auldhouse warns it is imperative that organisations have staff with the appropriate skills and knowledge to ensure their IT projects are successful.

“The consequences of a poorly resourced ICT project can result in budget blowouts, deadlines not being met and, at times, complete failure,” says Auckland sales manager Leigh Richardson.

Clear believes that in an age of the “portfolio career”, firms must support employees throughout training to earn their loyalty. Indeed, one former student told him where she went next depended on whether they would fund her higher studies.

The tertiary sector has suffered from a global downturn in students studying computing. Some New Zealand institutions have retrenched IT academics but AUT has held its position.

“Parents are misled about the scope and challenge of computing careers, and the offshoring and globalisation trends are concerning many about the viability of computing careers,” Clear says.

Universities of innovation

AUT is, consequently, focusing more on research into better teaching of computing and increasing its promotion of IT as an attractive career option. New courses are coming in, with many students studying conjoint degrees, taking computing alongside subjects such as business. A wider Bachelor of Creative Technologies degree will soon combine art, design and computing mathematics “to produce a truly multi-disciplinary graduate equipped for tomorrow’s careers in the creative industries sector.”

Furthermore, final year students will undertake external research or work experience.

At WELTEC, technology students are being offered cadetships by IT services company Fronde. This involves summer work experience, a $5,000 scholarship, and eventually, a job at the end of it.

At present, there are just five places, but Fronde’s southern region general manager Ian Clarke plans to extend that to 10 this summer and 20 in 2008 — an initiative he believes is unique.

“We want to send a message to students that this industry is attractive.”

Clarke also hopes his ‘Frondeships’ will give his company, previously known as Synergy, the edge over rivals who increasingly recruit direct from university.

Universities also offer other options, stressing IT managers must also have the right attitude and other skills, too. The University of Auckland Business School offers over 300 courses specifically designed for busy professionals, such as communication, human resources, leadership, management, project management, personal productivity and development. Some 4000 attend these every year.

“As a technical manager, improving your management, communication and presentation skills can make a very tangible difference to your performance and the performance of your team,” says Darren Levy, director of short courses.

“We strongly believe that technical professionals must look outside the normal scope of industry specific training to broaden their skill and knowledge base. To be successful in this rapidly changing business world, technical professionals must differentiate themselves by becoming more well-rounded business executives, “ Levy says.

Private providers cope with change

As technologies and methodologies change, private providers are also responding with new courses and initiatives. Avonmore, which several years ago expanded from its Christchurch base to operate licensees in Whangarei, Tauranga, and Auckland’s North Shore, says it is busy with zero-fees for entry level courses, which help students decide if ICT is the industry for them.

Since government-funded ‘free’ courses were launched two years ago, Mike Hadley, Avonmore’s GM of corporate training solutions, says around 90% move on after the six-month ‘trial’ to full-fee courses. These include MCSAs, MCSEs and A+ Networking.

“Avonmore offers hands-on courses that design and build networks. They are very practical compared to video and theory-based programmes,” Hadley explains.

Recently, Avonmore launched Avonmore Corporate Training Solutions offering desktop and technical training to the corporate market, featuring tailor-made courses using interactive technology. “Within this offer, Avonmore offers instructor-led and e-learning capability, including ICDL (International Computer Driver License) testing and assessments,” he says.

Fellow trainer Ace reports a “massive release of new courses and certifications from Microsoft and Adobe,” including new courses for Office 2007 and Vista.

Ace is planning to launch distance learning options using webcams combined with traditional teaching.

Training manager Trevor Carman admits clients still “seem to want to have a human in front of them despite the myriad of other learning options being provided.”

The growing need for better security is highlighted with Auldhouse launching a Certified Ethical Hacker programme in June. Taught by UK trainer Mark Elliot, the courses run every six weeks and are aimed at security officers, auditors, security professionals and site administrators.

“They feature hands-on exercises like intrusion detection using tools that are freely available. By breaking into real websites, you can understand how such tools might be used against them,” says technical trainer Tim Regan.

Security is also a focus of the ALC Group, with its new SABSA security architecture courses. Security training is almost always devoted to stopping things, says Matt Whelan, while instead “SABSA is dedicated to the concept of security enhancing the business.”

The ALC Group has also launched courses on disaster recovery and business continuity management, the COBIT IT governance framework and ITIL. Such courses use webinars, featuring the presenter using live video and web-based presentations, as well as teleconferences. Recent CISM webinars featured the presenter in Mexico, and attendees in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore.

However, major provider AMES also reports a preference for classroom settings, noting its e-learning initiatives did not catch on.

Instead, CEO George Marr says Microsoft courses feature virtualisation and simulation in classroom settings.

Ames has just become a Cisco Certified Network Professional Academy and has installed three labs of Cisco routers. The first intake of 12 was in July, with the next due in October.

AMES recently launched courses in programming, especially C# and .Net and notes much demand for the CompTIA original technicians course, which turns school leavers into technicians. “The industry needs a bucket of them,” Marr adds.

But if IT is not it, AMES will soon have an alternative — a two year management course in skydiving!

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