Keeping Your Staff Marketable

BOSTON (06/12/2000) - When Torbjorn Dimblad considered job offers in 1997, training was upmost on his mind. After all, there wasn't much call from information technology shops for his major in Asian studies. But he had taken exactly one computer class in college, and he wanted to work in technology.

That's why he took a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

"The opportunity to spend [10 weeks] getting up to speed was a big consideration," says Dimblad.

The Training Imperative

Starting a first-day employee immediately on two-and-a-half months of training classes may seem accommodating to the point of humor, but leading IT shops aren't laughing. Such companies have found that to recruit good candidates, retain employees and obtain the highest-quality work, creating training opportunities is as necessary as providing competitive salaries and benefits.

Certainly, Dimblad's background is relatively rare at New York-based PricewaterhouseCoopers. Most new employees majored in computer science or information management. Yet all receive extensive training to both learn the company's methodology and to pick up some additional background in business processes.

There's also training in project management and other consulting skills. Much of the learning happens at the firm's primary training center in Tampa, Florida. The yearly average cost for all employee training is US$7,500.

As a result, the training has become a big draw for potential employees, and not just for those right out of college, according to Kathy Macesich, a technology solutions training capability manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Not all companies use training aggressively in their recruiting, however. A number of the Top 100 say that training is more like a required checklist item for potential employees.

"I don't think it's something that we flaunt, because we don't have a promise or expectation. Training is part of a package that shows employees that they'll be supported in growing in their jobs," says Laurie X Wayne, manager of the IT learning group at San Jose-based Cisco Systems Inc.

New Ways to Deliver Training

Still, even when a company doesn't parade training, employees look hard for it.

To remain competitive in IT, people must continue to add new skills and hone old ones. That's why learning opportunities become a must for employee retention at all the top IT shops.

Opening up those opportunities can be difficult with the pressure of daily business. In response, some companies offer traditional training and supplement it with computer-based training and Web offerings over an intranet.

Cisco has 2,000 IT employees and provides them with an average of 10 training days per year. Training topics include products, technical skills and "soft" skills, such as holding effective meetings and conflict resolution. "A big thrust for us is e-learning," says Wayne about Cisco's 135 electronic courses.

"People can take [those] anytime they want."

While many other companies may be adding Web- and computer-based training to the mix, few are allowing employees to enroll in training courses by filling out an electronic form on their browsers, as Cisco does. Requests for classes are then routed to the appropriate managers for approval.

Measuring the Results

Signing up may be painless, but judging the effectiveness of training isn't.

Although providing learning opportunities is important in recruiting and retaining employees, companies must be sure that courses match business needs as well.

Some companies, like Computer Associates International Inc. in Islandia, New York, rely on external measurements of achievement. "In terms of IT skills, one of the first ways we measure is through certification," says Kevin Long, vice president of employee development at CA. "The goal is to become an MCSE or a certified Unicenter engineer."

With certifications in place, managers can further determine whether or not employees can perform particular jobs. CA wants employees to spend a "bare minimum" of 80 hours, or two work weeks, per year in classes. The company also takes a rare step of setting up simulation environments.

"In a day or five days in the simulator, we can have someone experience some of the tasks that might take them six months of field work [to see]," explains Long.

Drives toward training and certification can start as soon as employees walk through the door. Andy Chandler, a senior Unix systems administrator, started at CA in early January. "I've taken the full Sun Solaris systems administration [course] and been certified," says Chandler, who plans on also obtaining Unicenter certification.

Many companies also use "smile sheets," or surveys, at the end of a course.

Such instruments may have their place but don't always tell a full story. Avon Products Inc. in New York, which tries to budget 10 days of training per IT employee per year, uses smile sheets as well as more extended assessments.

"We do some random contacting of people a month after the class has taken place," says Frank Chiappetta, Avons' manager of global technology education services, who checks to see if employees are using the training. Because of Avon's corporate culture, employees also stop him in the hall or cafeteria to talk about training experiences.

Cheryl Rykowski, manager of global organizational learning at Avon, provides soft-skills training to IT employees. She completely skips the smile sheets, having formerly used surveys. "I never got anything less than a four [out of five]," she remembers. Rykowski says she gets the best feedback from informal questions months after employees have taken a class.

Informal Advances

Such informal employee education and mentoring have become a major force in training at leading companies.

"We have a goal of 10 percent of your time to be spent on training," says Bridgette Deboer, a division manager at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. With per-IT employee training taking an impressive 25 or so days per year, the company might run the risk of being chronically understaffed if all the training were to take place off-site. Although the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retail chain offers such courses, there's also emphasis on more informal methods of training.

"The informal training tends to be a little bit more useful in our situation right now," says Aaron Tunnell, a systems programmer at Wal-Mart. "The formal training is geared more toward ... learning more about the methodologies."

Mentoring programs and hands-on practice give Tunnell a chance to try technology at work. "Methodologies are great, but they aren't useful if you can't employ them in your own environment," he says.

Although IT employees desire training, it's easy to forget how much of a chore it can become at times. CDW Computer Centers Inc. develops IT workers to become project leaders and managers through its managers-in-training program.

An in-house series of management classes teaches leadership skills that range from using different management styles to interviewing techniques and annual appraisal methods. "There is no limit on what we will invest to train coworkers," says Susan Fischer, manager of e-commerce marketing at the Vernon Hills, Illinois-based company.

Whereas employees already in management have to take 14 courses over 18 months, those in the manager-in-training program work in a one-year, compressed time frame. "It's definitely a big challenge to manage everything else you're doing and take this time to improve yourself, which will help you improve your staff," says Chris Jannick, an IT operations manager at CDW, who is still putting in an extra hour or two per day for further training. "So far it's been worth it."

Sherman is a freelance writer in Marshfield, Massachusetts.

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