Training in the hot skills

Australia's peak professional association for information, communication and technology professionals The Australian Computer Society believes Australia's IT industry is over-supplied with certain skills due to a falling demand for some project types.

And this is not working in new graduates' favour, says ACS certification manager Gerard Murphy.

Graduates come out with a high level of theory, but have trouble getting jobs, because they don't have the relevant experience. "So they can't effectively apply their knowledge in practical situations," he says.

Geoff Bransbury and Greg Lowe, directors of ITIQ, said that over the past year, organisations like McDonald's, 3M, IBM and Boeing prized all forms of Cisco certification as essential qualifications for their IT employees. Lowe said Check Point, Oracle 8 and Oracle 9i database administrator certifications are also in demand at ITIQ, which distributes KnowledgeNet certification and e-learning solutions.

Such qualifications, particularly Cisco's highest certifications - the CCIE (Cisco Certified Internet Expert) Security Specialist and CSS (Cisco Security Specialist 1) - are highly sought after because they are considered some of the most challenging to attain.

"For the CCIE in particular, there are only 4500 in the world and the failure rate is 80 per cent," Lowe said.

US IT training consultants consider the CCIE a hot qualification, because it is a way for people to hone or validate their security skills, they say.

Illustrating this claim, Cisco has added a security component to its top certification, the CCIE, which covers IP, IP routing, and specific security components. Meanwhile, the Cisco Security Specialist 1 requires a Cisco Certified Network Associate designation and proficiency with Cisco's firewalls, intrusion detection systems and virtual private networks.

Dimension Data Learning Solutions' state manager for Victoria, Michael Devitt, agrees that, based on pure numbers, Cisco and Microsoft are the high-demand certifications, but are still "scarce" in their purest form.

"Microsoft and Cisco's high-end certifications, the Microsoft Certified Systems Developer (MCSD) and CCIE certifications, are rare and are the qualifications most IT staff in these areas aim towards.

"Microsoft and Cisco are still in greatest demand due to their market penetration. Those certifications, especially, require [students] to prove their ability with the products. [So] companies seeking outsourcing providers can place a greater confidence on the services of certified personnel," Devitt said.

ITIQ's Lowe calls MSCE the bread and butter of certification in terms of sheer volume, saying it is the most consistent top seller.

Dimension Data Learning Solutions general manager Steve Ross said that last year Windows 2000 training for professional IT staff started out with 5 per cent of large companies involved and grew to 80 per cent involvement in the last six months.

Qualifying the growth, Ross said: "Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) training for Windows 2000 is getting very strong, with a whole range of training courses now available, not just Essentials, Professional or Server."

While the ACS says demand for product-specific certifications continues to remain high in Australia, interest in certification has been shifting towards what the society calls 'knowledge' certifications.

"Product training is not sufficient if we're really going to progress the industry - it's too short-term," ACS' Murphy said.

Gearing for battle

Aiming to provide more long-term value in its certification courses, the ACS has introduced new knowledge-intensive modules, such as knowledge management and software development.

"E-business started in 2000 and became our most popular module in 2000 and 2001.

"Also, project management has reasserted its dominance in 2002," Murphy says, due to more pressure for greater accountability from IT staff.

Nigel Jones, technical trainer and head of Sydney-based independent IT training consultancy Training2U, believes demand for Novell NetWare and Microsoft certification will "increase as we see the need for improved skill sets for the Microsoft .Net and Sun ONE battle.

User needs still demands adequate provision of training as the interfaces change, he said.

And because of this trend, the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) is taking hold, Jones said.

"The recent release of new Microsoft Press training guides shows the demand for this new and appropriate certification.

"MCSA with pure Windows 2000 skills will be chasing hard and fast those that have relied on historic certifications."

New certifications causing a groundswell in Australia include the Microsoft Certified Application Developer (MCAD), Cisco Security Specialist (CSS) and Citrix Certified Enterprise Administrator (CCEA), according to Dimension Data Learning Solutions.

This shift indicates some of the most important areas to enterprises right now, he says.

At e-learning solutions and IT training specialist NETg, its most requested certification courses are those supporting major vendors' products - typically, any Microsoft Certification course (especially MCSE), and ProSoft Training's Certified Internet Webmaster (CIW) Security Analyst, says NETg Australia's marketing manager Kathleen Norman.

The CIW program recognises those who can implement security policy, identify security threats, and develop countermeasures using firewalls and attack-recognition technologies. Prerequisite qualifications include one of several certifications from Cisco, Microsoft or Novell and pass the CIW Security Professional exam.

Training2U's Jones says Novell is "doing its part" to maintain the value of certification. Master Certified Engineers are now required to complete CompTIA "IT Project+" as well as the technical update certification to NetWare 6, he said.

Novell is also supporting its Master Certification by offering existing NetWare 5 engineers an upgrade path to Master CNE by completing the same two certifications. "This is an excellent opportunity - but only over the next five months - to achieve this premier certification," Jones said, as next year, existing NetWare 5 engineers must pass four exams to achieve Master Certification.

Some of the newest niche certifications NETg offers include the CIW Enterprise Specialist Part 4: EJB (Enterprise Java Beans) Deployment, EJB Clients and Entity Beans; and CIW Enterprise Specialist Part 5: CMP (container managed persistence), EJB Transactions and Security. Others include A+ Certification (updated to Windows 2000), MCSE (the latest Microsoft Certification on Windows 2000) and Java Certifications like the Sun Certified Programmer for Java 2 Platform.

Norman says she is noticing a shift in the popularity of IT skills-based courses, versus soft skills courses. "'Hard skills" usually encompass vendor certifications, and while these are still extremely popular, soft skills courses are also gaining in popularity.

According to IDC, the demand for soft skills is expected to equal the demand for IT skills at $17 million by 2004.

Specifically, she says the soft skills more in demand include areas like customer service, team leading, management and conflict resolution, labour and government relations, delegation and time management.

Most popular training modes For Dimension Data Learning customers, the most popular training mode is face-to-face, Devitt said. However, he says there is increasing market interest in e-learning due to strong publicity around the growth of e-learning solutions.

And organisations that want to create a "true" learning environment will not rely on one training mode alone, he says.

"They will have in place a comprehensive planning process to assess staff needs and learning styles, and then provide an environment that caters for these varied styles and needs."

Devitt says typically an e-learning procedure may look something like:

Step 1: Assess needs and styles.

Step 2: Provide self-paced material (computer-based, e-learning and traditional reading) to ensure base level skills.

Step 3: A series of face-to-face workshops, courses and lab work to grow new skills.

Step 4: On-the-job mentoring and coaching.

Step 5: E-learning refresher sessions.

Step 6: Workplace assessment.

Step 7: Ongoing measurement, feedback and skills planning.

Emphasising that 'training' is about "how you do something", the ACS' Murphy says the society delivers its certification programs on paper.

"Training is what and how, rather than why," he says.

"Learning is about the theory and how to apply it - it requires a depth of understanding that training does not provide."

The ACS classifies its certification programs as part of a global learning program - supplementing the learning material with Web references but preferring students use the material on paper to overcome problems of slow download speeds and lack of access when sites are unavailable, Murphy said.

He says students' preferences dep-end on the convenience factor. "Face-to-face is terrific provided you can schedule yourself to be at class at a particular time, whereas for people who travel and have time constraints, the concept of distance or global learning solves that problem."

Generally, people are not asking for online products, Murphy says, as they don't see a lack of face-to-face as a problem. He adds that the ACS does not offer computer-based training because while it works, "it isn't really suitable for post-graduate level studies".

NETg's Norman says there is a shift away from the use of traditional classroom-based training alone to a blended learning model: "A learning method that combines different, tailored, content and delivery mediums to maximise learning efficiency and effectiveness.

"It can combine traditional classroom or lab settings, reading assignments, CD-ROM, performance support tools, teletraining and Web-based training," she says.

Norman says companies and training institutions that provide a blended solution can deliver pure classroom or pure e-learning solutions that meet identical training objectives.

"A person could start a course in the classroom and finish it on an aeroplane the next day," she said, adding: "HR managers are assured that users will learn the same skills, because no matter what the delivery method, all courses are generated from the same content source."

NETg recently completed a two-year study that found that employees who undertook blended learning courses in Excel were 30 per cent more accurate and 41 per cent quicker than employees who studied using a single method of learning.

Norman says anecdotal evidence also suggests that employees are more likely to learn effectively, efficiently and to enjoy learning if they can tailor the method of delivery to the way they prefer to learn, allowing them to study at their own pace.

-- Amy Schurr contributed to this article.

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