Grow your own IT professional

With companies eager to attract and hold on to skilled IT staff, organisations overseas are looking to train non-IT staff in technical roles. The concept is still in its infancy in New Zealand, but Kirstin Mills discovers some organisations leading the way.

With companies eager to attract and hold on to skilled IT staff, organisations overseas are looking to train non-IT staff in technical roles. The concept is still in its infancy in New Zealand, but Kirstin Mills discovers some organisations leading the way.

To say David Morrow is a man who likes a challenge is probably an understatement. Intelligent, motivated and a fast learner, he's the type of employee any company would want to hold on to.

Just five months ago he was the sponsorship manager for Clear Communications in Auckland. After starting as a sponsorship co-ordinator he'd worked his way up and wanted a fresh challenge. He would have looked outside the company, and perhaps offshore, if Clear hadn't provided a new direction for him in the e-commerce area - something he'd had an interest in through his MBA.

He had no IT background, but Clear provided on-the-job training for him as business applications manager for ClearNet. Now the company has one very loyal, satisfied and challenged staff member.

Clear uses a personal development programme to discover the goals and ambitions of employees and, where possible, lets them pursue them. Morrow had indicated about six months ago that he was interested in a new challenge.

Obviously this kind of open-mindedness benefits the employees, but as Morrow points out, it also benefits Clear.

"I think the benefit for the company is that, straight away, I've been able to deliver. It's very hard to find people with IT experience. There's a huge resource shortage.

"I've been able to come from a different background and deliver for the company even though I haven't had an IT background. I'm an added asset to the company now. It's only taken me a short period of time to get up to speed and start delivering the outcomes which they require."

Clear wasn't worried about his lack of IT background, because it was something he could learn. The company instead was after his project management skills and ability to work with a team and deliver.

Training non-techies

Obviously Morrow already knew the business as well, and that's another bonus for any company retraining staff from other parts of the business in IT. A clear example of where this has worked well has been at Inland Revenue, an organisation that appears to be leading the way when it comes to retraining non-techies.

About two and a half years ago, Inland Revenue's IT department (a Cobol shop) became concerned about its turnover. National IT manager Tony Lester says it was in line with other IT units, heading towards 20%. The organisation decided to look at its own internal staff. About 10 non-IT people out of about 90 applicants from various parts of Inland Revenue were selected for an IT training programme. Lester was surprised to discover that some of the non-IT staff already had good IT skills.

Recruitment firm Maxim Adecco helped with the selection process, which Lester says was critical. It was important people would fit into an IT shop environment. "The bright lights look attractive. But at the end of the day you've got to knuckle down."

Lester says the staff members had to:

  • be experienced as an expert user (expert users are people who have worked on projects and built up a degree of knowledge - the people who sit alongside Inland Revenue's IT team during projects), or
  • be studying to do some computer-related work, or
  • already have some computer-related qualification.
Those selected immediately became part of the IT department and were put through a 12-week off-site training course run in conjunction with Whitireia Polytechnic near Wellington. The course closely mirrored the New Zealand Certificate in Business Computing (NZCBC). That first course has been followed by two more courses - with a total of 28 people being retrained. They include customer service, audit and debt collection staff and people from National Office. Lester says these people bring huge business skills to the IT department.

"We're very much a business-focused IT shop ... These people have added hugely to that. From a cost-benefit perspective you can't put a value on business knowledge - it really is a strong component of how we develop our systems."

The training primarily focused on applications development, principally on Cobol. Lester says that when they finished the polytechnic training there was quite extensive training on Inland Revenue's workbench environment and its development application environment.

The initial curriculum was set up jointly between Maxim, Whitireia and Inland Revenue. It has evolved to become more focused on Inland Revenue content over time.

Some people going through the programme already had Bachelor of Science degrees; some had CBCs, while others had no formal qualifications. So one challenge was to keep everyone together as a team. "That was quite critical," says Lester. "They created quite a buddy group. And so they've been quite a strong group since they've been in the place."

He says this has been especially true of the last group, which stayed together for two months after finishing the polytechnic training.

They undertook some intensive hands-on training inside the Inland Revenue IT shop, and were given quite a complex piece of work to do as a project. "That has proven to be very, very successful. We can see quite clearly proven results because of the work they've produced," Lester says.

Creating success, saving money

One of the staff members in the third group was Larissa Hutson. She says the small size of the group (15) worked well and adds that the group members remain good friends.

"I'm now a programmer working on a student loan project . One of the guys that was on my intake joined the same team as me. We've been able to support each other in the job as well."

Hutson had been a customer services officer in Christchurch after completing a BA in art history and classics. She was given the opportunity to become an "expert user", working alongside IT staff in Wellington as a systems tester for the Y2K project. She was given on-the-job training for that role.

When she learned about the programme she decided it would be an excellent opportunity to get "a proper career for myself". Had the programme not existed, she would have returned to work in Christchurch, and planned to do part-time training in computer science at Canterbury University. She says she "loves" her new role.

The success of the project is not just anecdotal. A formal review of the three courses done by the Inland Revenue's HR department gave it top marks.

And turnover has improved markedly - down to 1.67%. However, Lester is quick to point out that the low figure hasn't come about solely because of the programme. "We've got lots of things going on to make sure we look after our staff as much as possible. We've been tracking at less than 2% for the last 12 months."

Lester believes other employers should consider a training programme for non-techies. He says such programmes do not replace recruitment drives, but can work hand in hand with them.

"If people are prepared to put the time and effort in, employers should work out what they can do to help . Get out and do it. Get out and look at the people you've got in your organisation across the board. There [could be] some very, very highly skilled people working in many parts of the organisation that you may not know about."

He advises setting up a programme with a training organisation to ensure you provide a proper curriculum and professional training.

Maxim Adecco regional manager Jane Fanselow says there was no special treatment for the Inland Revenue staff - they all had to sit exams and achieve an academic standard. "It's a truism of people who come back to study that they usually come back with a clear focus and some specific goals in mind . The results were, for every course we ran, quite amazing. There were some spectacularly successful students."

She says that part-time units have also been run where Inland Revenue has supported people who want to carry on studying. "It's been a very interesting thing, from our perspective, to work with a government department which is not regarded as everybody's favourite friend ... [but] as an employer they have been prepared to invest in their staff and support them to an extent far greater than a huge number of very high-profile companies."

She says the money spent on training has been a good investment for the department. "They've saved a pile of money. The cost of employing somebody is not just the cost of employing them, it's the down-time . I imagine it's saved hundreds of thousands in terms of recruitment fees."

Lester says Inland Revenue will consider this year whether to hold another course. "It's a very good source of people that you wouldn't want to turn off."

Of course, one fear when it comes to training is that staff will leave after you've invested thousands of dollars in them.

Of the 28 who have gone through, 21 are still in Inland Revenue's IT department. In most cases those who did not stay moved back to other parts of the organisation.

Creating loyalty

Retention after training was also a concern for Ubix national services manager Tony Day when his company retrained its technicians in IT skills a couple of years ago.

It had 160 technicians throughout New Zealand, but with the move to digital photocopiers the technicians needed to learn new skills related to PCs and networks. All did some basic digital training, while about 70% went on to do A+ certification through Accelerated Computing Training. Some continued with Network+ and MCP (Microsoft certified professional), and about eight people went further and obtained MCSEs (Microsoft certified systems engineer). Three have now moved from being technicians to working solely in networking.

Day says the fear of people leaving when investing in training is a constant concern, particularly being a large organisation. Ubix lost "two or three" people. He says companies have to ensure they look after staff and find them new challenges so they don't want to leave.

His advice to others contemplating such training is to make sure it's a joint effort. "You are going to invest in the employee and you've got to be very, very certain that that's what they want to do and that's where their interest is, otherwise that investment might very well be wasted."

Like Inland Revenue's Lester, he says picking the right people is essential. "You can lead a horse to water and some are really thirsty and some are not."

The loyalty to the organisation that such training generates cannot be underestimated. Miller speaks warmly of his company and Morrow says he feels very positive about his move to ClearNet. "Before I was labelled as a sponsorship person in the industry . Clear has given me an opportunity to move in a whole different industry which I wouldn't have got outside."

Regarding Inland Revenue, Fanselow says every student she's spoken to has been overwhelmed by the opportunity they've been given. "One said to me 'I feel like I've won Lotto. I've been given an opportunity to retrain in this and I would never have been able to [on my own].'

"People who have children would never have been able to stop working to actually take the time off, not earn money and retrain. They've been given this wonderful opportunity and the loyalty is very strong so turnover will drop. Their productivity and their results will improve and the environment's a happy one."

So why aren't lots of other organisations and companies doing this?

Fanselow says Maxim has suggested it to a number, and included the idea of bringing together people from smaller organisations on one course.

However, she says it's quite a visionary approach that Inland Revenue has taken.

"It's money up front for a long-term return - after a couple of years, it's paid off. But there hasn't been the same enthusiasm to commit to that from other organisations."

She says employers prefer to take on people who are already qualified, even though that can take three or four months and people don't come equipped with organisational knowledge.

"It takes them another two or three months to actually gain that and you might have saved time by putting someone on a course in the beginning."

It might seem unusual that a recruitment firm would promote such a programme, but Fanselow points out there just aren't that many Cobol people out there and any recruiter who worked with Inland Revenue hit the same brick wall.

"We addressed a real issue in terms of skill shortages in the market. We weren't able to help them with that, but literally, we helped them create their own, which is great."

No risk

Even if New Zealand companies aren't embracing training programmes in the way Inland Revenue has, there are certainly stories of individual successes. Jerry Miller at Tasman Insulation in Penrose, Auckland, is an example. A mechanical engineer by training, he now splits his time 50:50 being a process engineer and doing IT work such as fixing server and desktop problems. Previously all his time was devoted to his engineering role. Miller describes his new role as a lot of fun.

He did some programming as part of his engineering degree 20 years ago, and found it fascinating. At Tasman Insulation he always took the opportunity to help with IT when he could. However, the main motivator to get him to retrain was the realisation that engineering might not provide him with future employment.

"I went to the company and said 'if I don't do something else I'm going to be on the scrap heap in a few years'."

He had planned to do some computer training on his own. However when the company's IT person left, the company suggested he take over. It paid for him to do basic A+ training and network essentials last year through Accelerated Computer Training.

"That made a huge difference. I was planning on resigning and covering the cost of training myself. There's a huge risk there. This way I didn't have to take a risk at all."