Planting Seeds

Companies are leading initiatives to solve the ongoing IT skills shortage, hoping their efforts will soon bear fruit.

September 1 2000 by Rick Roscitt


If you fear this may be just one more story to sound a warning knell about the IT skills shortage-not too worry. We are, all of us, already painfully aware of the problem. It’s time to talk about the solutions, the innovative, corporate-led initiatives that hold promise for dealing with the ongoing shortage in IT talent.

It is no surprise that e-business and e-commerce are big drivers of today’s emerging digital economy. If you followed this trend back 18 to 24 months,you see that dot-corns started and continue to lead most e-business initiatives, but e-business today has attracted the interest of all types of companies. Who among us can afford not to? While the number of dot-coms continues to grow, the big institutions long-established firms such as General Motors, Merrill Lynch, CitiGroup, and Bank One-are now moving aggressively to adopt e-business, e-commerce cultures and infrastructures. This trend toward redefining the business models of traditional global leaders has spawned the term “bricks-and-clicks” in our vocabulary today.

In short, everybody is jumping in. We now find ourselves in a time when big and small institutions need to make mission-critical decisions at Internet speed to keep up with the pace of change in technology, marketplace expectations, and competitive imperatives. E-business is revolutionizing corporations as we  know them. To be successful today, enterprises must now manage products and services, customer contact, delivery, and supply-chain management in real time, all on a networking-centric fabric with customer demand for anytime, anywhere access to information and services leading the charge. In essence, networking has become the lifeblood of e-business.

The corporate response to this increasing demand for 24-by-7 access to information and services has led to the emergence of the virtual corporation model. Although it began with just-in-time inventory, nearly every company today is both forward and reverse integrating how they create products and how they go to market. Again, who can afford not to?

Today, enterprise value is established through the creation of “business webs,” a term coined by Don Tapscott of the Alliance for Converging Technologies in his book Digital Capital. These business webs are open alliance networking systems that allow users, suppliers, and distributors to harness core competencies to create value for all. If any of these companies fails to adequately complete its job, the entire business web is affected. Such a problem could have dramatic financial ramifications on all of the corporations involved.

This is a marked departure from the past when executives only had to worry about their own applications and their own internal personnel to support the underlying infrastructure. And this is just a piece of an interconnected, networked environment as companies becomeincreasingly dependent on the strength of IT skills in all partnering organizations. Suddenly, the IT skills shortage is no longer merely a problem for IT companies; it’s a problem for all businesses in this new digital economy.

When I first started to look at IT skills shortage statistics, the number of vacant IT jobs was said to be approximately 150,000; later, it was thought to be as many as 350,000 vacancies. In the latest forecast I’ve read, it is projected that companies and institutions will have more than 1 million unfilled, IT-related positions by 2005.

Undeniably, the problem is growing-and it has prompted warnings by technology industry leaders and the U.S. Department of Commerce to address the need. Today, corporations and educators have declared a call to action to prepare our young people for the information technology and related business knowledge required in the exploding digital economy.

There are four distinct corporate initiatives, each of which takes a unique path toward understanding different educational and skills development techniques. AT&T, Cisco Systems, Federal Express, and GE all have taken steps toward creating channels to develop a new labor force while enhancing the skills of current employees.

The Trend-Setters

With the broadening skill requirements projected for the future workforce and an inadequate supply of existing skilled IT workers, corporations are creating aggressive training programs to address this critical staffing issue.

  • The AT&T Education Alliance is one example of creating a mutually beneficial partnership between corporations and targeted universities. It addresses the importance of developing curriculum and obtaining real life work experience that will teach students needed networking skills and expertise. Under this type of program, companies offer their facilities and share their knowledge with university faculty and students to make the educational experience highly beneficial and practical for both students and participating companies as potential employers.

More specifically, the AT&T Education Alliance’s objective is to develop and strengthen the strategic networking-related curriculum in each university and collaboratively develop activities and course work, which combine networking technology with business management strategy. The Alliance’s internships and cooperative education programs enhance member schools’ networking programs by offering relevant work experience for students and faculty. And company personnel can engage in their own internships by visiting the educational facilities to conduct research, lecture, or participate in executive educational opportunities.

  •  Cisco Systems is also supporting education and combating the IT skills shortage through its Cisco Networking Academy. With an innovative partnership with educational institutions across the world, Cisco helps educate and certify high school and college students to design, build, and manage computer networks. An important aspect of the program is that students are in instructor-led courses with an increased focus on project-based learning in a lab environment.

Students who complete this program have the knowledge and experience to pass a test to become a Cisco Certified Networking Associate (CCNA). These education programs enable students to transition directly from school to the workforce, and accept positions as network technicians and entry-level network administrators. Having high school and junior college students participating in these types of education programs is a phenomenon we will likely encounter more frequently in coming years.

  •   Federal Express’ involvement with schools is well known. Their leadership role in convening the Internet Curriculum Consortium, a task force created to develop standards for Internet education and training, illustrates Federal Express’ commitment to our future work-force. The program brings together industry leaders with universities to overcome the past curriculum challenges, and develop new programs that offer students the skills they need to be successful in today’s business community.

Federal Express was also the sponsor of National Techies Day in the fall of 1999 to promote the need for educational programs that encourage young people to pursue careers in technology.

  •   While General Electric has also taken great steps toward improving school curricula, the company has taken a different approach to supporting students by funding innovative mentoring programs at elementary and secondary schools, and colleges throughout the United States with the GE Fund. This program offers scholarships and allows employees to teach and mentor students in the “GE Fund Faculty for the Future” program. In addition, the GE Fund sponsors the “Learning Excellence” program that provides grants to help redesign curricula to ensure that students get the most out of their education.

GE has also created ELFUN, a global organization of GE employees and retirees committed to improving our communities through volunteerism, leadership, and camaraderie. The success of this program led to the partnership of ELFUN with the GE Fund’s financial resources to create challenge grants, college bound programs, and early years initiatives. There are 42,000 members in 100 chapters in 20 countries taking part in these programs worldwide.

Clearly, corporate enterprises are developing a number of options to help prepare for tomorrow. Whether at the university level or in elementary and high school programs, the business community has gotten the message that we must work together with institutions of learning to overcome the IT skills challenge.

Of course, creating alliances between businesses and schools requires a commitment of resources of all kinds. In addition to offering industry expertise and guidance, corporate partners also need to provide the funding necessary to add faculty, develop curriculum, offer internships, and create cooperative education programs. In fact, each of the companies previously cited is actively providing grants to expand educational opportunities that will allow students to pursue careers in a growing number of IT-related disciplines. Further, role model executives need to commit themselves to involvement through guest lectures, visits with students, or in facilitating the placement of interns.

Developing Employee Skills

These types of corporate-led education initiatives are critical in preparing a future workforce with the required skill sets. Now corporations realize they need to address the scarcity of skills within their current workforce with the same vigor. In this spirit, many enterprises are developing innovative employee education/training programs to keep the skills of existing employees abreast of constantly evolving technologies.

Federal Express is following this trend by expanding its efforts with its university partners to develop executive education programs designed to enhance the skills of its employees. In one program, the IT staff can enter an accelerated master’s degree program in computer science or information management, sponsored at Colorado Technical University. Federal Express has also opened a World Tech Center technology campus, which provides the technology workforce a cutting-edge environment to build on their current talents and knowledge.

GE is developing an aggressive internal educational system to help its employees keep pace with rapid advancements in technology. Each GE business unit conducts its own training and educational programs tailored to each unit’s business needs. For example, GE Appliances’ Appliance Park University (APU) makes training available for all employees to develop their business and technical skills. Technical courses are offered in hydraulics, electricity, process mapping, and process improvement. Additional business courses include leadership development, conflict management, diversity, teamwork and empowerment, and communications skills. The program is designed to meet the personal needs of students and the business needs of GE.

GE not only offers technical training programs, but also formal degrees. Employees have the opportunity to obtain degrees in engineering technology, occupational training and development, and business administration with a computer concentration as well as MBA and Executive-MBA programs.

The Technology One Alliance, formed by Bank One Corporation, AT&T Solutions, and IBM Global Services, takes this idea of employee education to a different level. Here we have formed a three-way, customer-supplier virtual corporation, in which the three participating companies share skills, people, and training while AT&T and IBM provide the bank with best-of-breed information technology and management. We meet as a board and run the Alliance as if it were a virtual corporation. Meantime, employees of Bank One, AT&T, and IBM have the opportunity to work in integrated teams, receive training, and take on developmental job assignments with another of the participating companies. Also, we have moved to a shared-goal compensation plan, in which the virtual company teams are all incented to achieve a common set of goals.

In addition, we have established a partnership with Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business to enhance our training efforts, develop a strong e-business MBA program, and explore best practices for developing skilled professionals in information and networking technology. Together, the Alliance members will work with Ohio State to continue its research on virtual organizations and curriculum development, while providing internships and other training opportunities to develop a solid IT workforce.

The area of internal enterprise skills development should not be taken lightly. Offering a leading-edge training/education program plays a critical role in determining the quality and strength of a company’s workforce and ultimately the success of its business. Additionally, CEOs may want to increase the scope of their skills-development programs to include partner companies in the supply value chain. It is important to keep in mind that investing in the skills of suppliers and distribution networks is just as important as internal staff.

Missives and Mandates

When I graduated as an engineer from the Stevens Institute of Technology more than 25 years ago, the technology marketplace was a different world. Clearly, the need for IT skills was dramatically lower then compared with today. Today’s imperative to satisfy rising customer demands and the unending focus on productivity keep raising the IT performance bar for businesses and institutions of learning.

The reality is that the country’s educational system cannot keep up with the burgeoning demand for engineers, computer scientists, networking professionals, and systems analysts-not to mention new IT skills sets emerging everyday. Statistics from the Bureau of Labor predict that the demand for these jobs will more than double by 2006. With that in mind, corporations, associations, and government agencies clearly have a vested interest in working together to overcome this challenge.

Going forward, the mission critical nature of IT and network-centric business functions will only force more and more industries to look for alternative ways to meet their need for IT skills. Today’s strongest option—–partnering and collaborating-will become more pronounced, but the forms of these partnerships and collaborations will change. As these alliances evolve, companies in every industry will inevitably become involved in establishing networking relationships in search of core competencies.

Another vital commitment companies must make is to set up intern programs, which are critical to developing a highly trained workforce with real life experience, while enhancing recruiting efforts. The talent may not be available for full-time employment immediately, but investing in these programs is a strategic way to build your IT workforce of the future.

Researching and reporting industry needs is another area where enterprise should take the lead. Education can only be improved if industry leaders communicate with academia. By researching the IT industry’s needs and sharing the knowledge, resources, and programs with universities, schools, and libraries, companies can build a far-reaching awareness of the skill sets required. As a result, greater attention can be focused on the severity of the problem, which should increase the willingness of businesses and educators to support these efforts.

Corporations need to accept responsibility for delivering continued education and training to their workforce. Many new training options have arisen from the Internet age to help companies and employees obtain the skills they need in methods that fit their busy lifestyles. Internet-based technology is, to be sure, a huge source of free information itself, but Web-based training delivered via in-house intranets can offer powerful focus and reinforcement of your company’s strategic business model. Some companies use Web-based training as a way to overcome differences in time and place, and many adults learn better when training is in real time as opposed to in the classroom. CEOs ought to be taking more advantage of these solutions.

As companies rise to the challenge of developing solutions to the IT skills shortage, it is natural for obstacles to surface. Recently, while participating in a think-tank session at an IT executive-leadership conference, I had the opportunity to share best practices ideas on addressing the skills challenge with leaders from the technology industry. Concern was expressed over a variety of issues. Many were uncertain as to the social and business impact of students who are becoming IT certified at the high school level and going directly into the workforce, bypassing the college degree step. Others said one of the greatest barriers to their IT projects is finding employees to hire and verifying that people actually have the skills they claim to offer. Additionally, participants offered alternative options to the staffing issue, such as IT outsourcing and the hiring of consultants, or “free agents.” This led us back to issues of training and the emerging skill sets needed in the newly defined and increasingly more valuable project management position in corporations.

It was clear from this discussion that there is no simple solution to the skills shortage. Despite the progress we’ve made thanks to academic/industry efforts, much work remains to be done. Leaders in business, education, philanthropy and community organizations, and all levels of government, must collaborate in unprecedented fashion before we can say realistically that the IT skills shortage has been addressed, let alone overcome.