Wireless skills in hot demand

The Catholic Education Office (CEO) in Parramatta had a big project on its hands, deploying a high-speed wireless network to its 75 schools in western Sydney.

The network, from Cisco Systems, aims to improve work flexibility for teachers and reduce operating expenses with 42,000 students and 3500 staff benefiting from wireless access to Internet and intranet resources.

Like a growing number of Australian organizations, the CEO is realizing the benefits of wireless networks, with the CEO having network features like security parameters able to be managed centrally so any changes to network configurations are automatically populated to all remote points throughout the network.

Moreover, by using the Cisco Wireless local area networking (LAN) Solutions Engine (WLSE) and Structured Wireless Aware Network (SWAN), the Catholic Education Office is now able to manage access points centrally and remotely, generating operational cost savings and higher productivity.

But with more wireless projects like this occurring every day, where are the IT professionals that are skilled to look after a wireless network? And where do they get these skills?

According to Catholic Education Office IT infrastructure manager Shane Wharton, the IT department didn't have to look for new staff with wireless skills, describing the whole deployment as "seamless".

"We had some support as part of the tender, and in our case when we went to tender we wanted the skills to be there," Wharton said. "Effective Data Communications were the brains behind the project, and we said we wanted to make it seamless and that's what the company provided."

However, Wharton still believes that training among CEO staff was necessary.

"We did have to supply our own support staff, about 23 of them, and we gave them face-to-face training and some written notes," Wharton said. "The stage we're at now is our centralized staff needs to find out about SWAN, so we'll carry out some training there."

Nicholas Tate, the University of Queensland director of information services, is one IT manager who knows the benefits of having IT professionals around who are experienced in wireless.

The university's Ipswich campus recently launched its upgraded wireless network, having first installed wireless within the institution in 2000. The upgraded network covers nearly the entire campus with wireless access, and UQ invested $50,000 in the development of the network. Such a project obviously required trained and experienced staff. According to Tate, the IT department was blessed with a team of IT professionals skilled in wireless, some with nearly a decade of experience under their belt.

However, Tate didn't overlook training of his staff.

He said, as he hadn't found any particularly useful courses, the team did quite a lot of on-the-job training in dealing with wireless.

"We did some training with our new system for authentication, but we were lucky because we had people working in our project that had dealt with wireless for more than a decade and had lots of practical experience."

Disappointed in the range of courses available for wireless training, staff are now trained in Cisco certifications, which involve general wireless training.

"I think the demand is increasing for professionals with wireless skills, partly because these days it's hard to buy a laptop without it having some wireless access," Tate said.

"[For this reason] the wireless networks need to be more robust than ever. We have 250 access points around the university, so we need staff who are experienced in this area.

"We will certainly keep a look out in the future for employees who have acquired some wireless skills."

But finding a good place for an IT professional to gain skills for a big wireless project can prove to be a challenge.

Spectro Technologies, a wireless training and consulting specialist, is one organization specializing in wireless technology training and is providing IT professionals with a way to acquire this hot skill.

Mark Morgan, founder and principal consultant of Spectro Technologies, which has added the Certified Wireless Security Professional (CWSP) upgrade class to its course list, said, "The CWSP certification is just one of the advanced certifications available in the Certified Wireless Network Professional (CWNP) training and certification program.

The CWSP was voted the number two certification for the highest paid IT certified professionals in today's market, he said.

"The CWNP foundation level certification, Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) was also recently voted as the number three, top rising certification.

"This certification is gaining wide acceptance in the Australian market from end users, manufacturers and a wide range of integrators."

Morgan said the training is all vendor-neutral, adding that SpectroTech is currently the only vendor-neutral Certified Wireless Network Professional education centre in Australia and New Zealand.

"With the current demand and success of the CWNP program and an ongoing vendor-neutral approach, we expect to see a number of other vendors move toward working with the complementary training model, rather than competing with a program that is already making strong ground around the globe," Morgan said.

Morgan said SpectroTech signed an agreement last week with Aruba Networks to become the first Aruba wireless training centre in the Asia-Pacific region with exclusive rights in the Australian and New Zealand market. Aruba this month won the contract to upgrade the Microsoft's global wireless LAN which involves replacing 5000 Cisco Aironet access points worldwide with Aruba's thin access points and WLAN switches, a deal that's seen as a blue chip stamp of approval for the use of WLAN switches and thin access points for large-scale WLAN deployments. According to Aruba, the WLAN will cover 277 buildings, in 60 countries, supporting 25,000 employees and an estimated 100,000 wireless-equipped devices.

IDC Australia research manager wireless and mobility Warren Chaisatien claims that demand for IT professionals with wireless skills is increasing every day.

"Judging from the growing needs of wireless projects by Australian businesses and innovative mobile services by consumers, wireless will become an increasingly important skill with a rising demand," Chaisatien said.

"I think wireless skills in this decade will be as valuable as the Internet skills of the last decade."

Chaisatien said there is a variety of training providers in wireless skills.

"Universities, colleges and technical certification courses are producing grads with wireless skills," Chaisatien said.

"Large vendors are also investing in their employees by providing wireless skills while branching out to capitalize on this fast-growing segment."

However, the analyst claims that the best bet for those hoping to jump on the wireless bandwagon is to look into practical training.

"I think the most practical training will be to take technical courses, like Microsoft or Cisco certified courses, without formal degrees," Chaisatien said.

"Of course, universities and colleges will provide more formal training for those who may want a more R&D-oriented career."

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