|C A R E E R S|
Training and Retraining -- Stop the IT Brain Drain
December 4, 2000
By Maria Schafer
One way to stem the turnover tide is to provide training and development for your IT staff. While compensation is the hot button for most IT professionals, many also consider professional development and career enhancement the top issues in their decisions to stay or go. This is particularly true for networking technicians, including the helpdesk, where turnover is the greatest.
Even with some slowdown in network equipment purchases, the demand for talent remains high. Training is often the integral component in an effective retention strategy. But are businesses offering IT training and professional development perks these days?
That depends, according to recent Meta Group research. For the most part, large companies with more than 1,000 IT employees have been the most aggressive in pursuing training. These companies are getting past the old fear that training your employees just gives them more expertise to take with them out the door. Companies participating in Meta's study say they have doubled training expenditures, spending an average of $1,000 per employee, up from just under $500 in 1999. The average training period per year also has doubled, to eight days.
Many plan to increase the training budget further: Network managers surveyed say they will spend 5 percent to 10 percent more in 2001. Training is finally becoming a priority in IT. But it's still underused overall in most organizations.
Back To School Is Cool
Rapid technological changes make it difficult to keep up, much less stay ahead of the curve. There's a lot to handle: new devices like PDAs joining the network, and the requirements to upgrade the infrastructure to support emerging Web applications and technologies.
Security training is especially hot right now because it's essential for companies to stay ahead of hackers and intruders. It's crucial to train IT in other network-management tools as well, such as traffic and usage-monitoring platforms.
The customer-interaction staff in networking benefits most from the highest levels of training, according to the Meta Group. Call-center personnel, for instance, need constant training because of emerging trends like the integration of voice technologies with faxes delivered via LAN, and interactive Web. Two factors are driving this:
Meanwhile, companies that are successful in retraining their IT staff don't simply provide product training and customer-response skills training. In some cases, they train staff electronically, with interactive tools from vendors such as Witness Systems and e-talk Corp. that provide live feedback. These tools can provide the agent the appropriate response to a customer's problem or the next steps to resolve a situation. Small, online "classes" can be tailored to specific products, procedures, or business issues or technologies, and fed to the agents' desktops over the corporate LAN.
Sandboxes, Not Certificates
Meta Group's research indicates that most companies don't have centralized or standardized training--they take an ad hoc approach. The pressure to maintain network operations at full throttle 24x7 means that management is often unwilling to authorize training unless IT staff members are willing to do it on their own time. This puts IT in a quandary--training is too important to leave to off-hours, and employees resent being asked to use their downtime for such purposes. Squeezing in training this way tends to foster turnover.
A better approach is to allow network personnel to "play in a sandbox," or lab environment, where they can try out new technologies and get a hands-on learning experience. The benefit for IT people is intellectual stimulation, as well as verification that the network infrastructure provides appropriate support for applications. Some vendors, such as Cisco Systems, often agree to supply their equipment for evaluation, gratis.
Many companies too often rely on certification as a benchmark for certain skill levels, which isn't always accurate enough to justify salary levels. The Microsoft Certified Systems Engineering certification program, for instance, is extremely popular. Trouble is, there is no standard process for it. Some certification program providers are just better than others, and as the technology ages, the value of the certification dwindles, too. That's why training that enhances fundamental skills is more valuable than training in specific tools and platforms.
Companies that responded to the Meta survey don't consider computer-based training alone sufficient, even with the obvious cost and time benefits. Computer-based training reduces the training cost per person to around $50 or less and eliminates travel time and cost. The IT professional can take the course when it's convenient. But computer-based training doesn't come with the personal interaction professionals get in a classroom setting. In fact, many network personnel see classroom-type training as one of the few opportunities for interacting with their peers, which boosts morale.
Pay Now or Later
Network managers are under increasing pressure to evolve their departments into service organizations for the company's infrastructure. That requires training and cross-training their staff in areas such as voice and data.
Network personnel positions represent more than one-third the unfilled IT positions in the United States alone, so it is clear that training existing staff, along with network automation, will be the only way out of this dilemma. The bottom line is that if companies don't focus on the needs of their IT people, they will continue to suffer turnover.
Maria Schafer directs human capital management research at Meta Group, an information technology research and advisory services firm based in Stamford, Conn. Send comments on this article to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on Meta Group's IT Staffing and Compensation Guide, go to www.metagroup.com/humancapital.