Training to beat the recession

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Martin Hill

HR departments have found that re-skilling employees and developing their existing expertise delivers long term efficiency savings and bridges the gaps created by job cuts and downsizing. Now markets such as IT are starting to pick up, it’s vital that business don’t turn their back on staff development, argues Martin Hill from Dell Education Services.

As the UK looks to free itself from the grip of recession, industry is looking to the future. Whilst the outlook is mostly positive, concerns over the capacity of the job market to fill new vacancies in recovering sectors suggests the road to recovery may not be as smooth as we might hope.

For IT the situation is particularly worrying, where an imminent crisis is looming. The UK is on the cusp of a serious IT skills shortage. This is a threat not just IT companies, but to all organisations with a significant IT infrastructure.

To cope HR departments must work with IT managers through these difficult times and support training programmes for both IT and non-IT staff. In the current climate, sending whole staff teams out on IT courses may seem like a luxury rather than a canny investment, but the long-term rewards far outweigh the short-term costs. Resources for IT support are at a premium, so whether it’s Windows 7, Office 2010 or cloud computing upgrades, the most successful implementations will be where HR and IT teams work together to ensure every member of staff hits the ground running. This will avoid IT helpdesk meltdown come the big switchover.

Specialist skills support the whole

A recent e-skills UK report (www.e-skills.com/News-and-Events/January-2011/New-e-skills-UK-research-shows-technology-workforce-needs-110000-new-recruits-this-year) predicted IT sector growth up to five times faster this year than the UK industry average. To support this growth e-skills estimates that 110,000 new entrants to the sector are required each year, for the next five years. Whilst most would view this as a positive sign of a recovering industry pulling itself out of economic recession, the picture painted by industry is far less rosy. The estimate was instead accompanied by strong concerns from Karen Price, CEO at e-skills UK, that without urgent changes to the way we develop our IT professionals, the falling number of individuals embarking on an IT profession will starve the industry of talent.

This view was echoed throughout the business and education world and is evident in surveys of graduate careers aspirations. A recent study by High Fliers Research suggests that just 3% of the 16,000-plus graduates it surveyed in 2010 want to work in IT, down from 12% in 2000. Applications from other routes such as career-changers are also lower than is needed to plug the gap.

Despite new positions opening up, the falling numbers of individuals pursuing careers threatens the future of the sector, and is forcing HR departments and IT managers to rethink how they will fill imminent gaps in their IT capabilities. With the job market seemingly unable to meet industry need, forward thinking employers are increasingly reassessing their approach to education and training. Smart organisations are investing in developing their most valuable resource – existing staff. As well as the efficiency and productivity gains, this boosts staff morale and retainment.

Relevant IT education programmes help businesses make the most of the resources available to them – both in terms of technology and people. This combination is a sure-fire way to increase efficiency, accelerate productivity, improve business performance, and deliver demonstrable positive effects on profit margins. A Gartner survey (http://www.gartner.com/DisplayDocument?id=490071&ref=g_sitelink) in 2006 found that companies who invest in IT training see a return of 500% on average. This is the sort of value that businesses cannot afford to miss out on.

This is the especially important as the latest upgrades offer genuine improvements in productivity and flexibility to business output. For many IT managers virtualisation, cloud computing and intelligent data storage are critical to maintaining productivity but each require new skills that existing IT staff may not possess.

A UNITE survey of UK IT employees out last month found 62% felt they lacked necessary training to keep their skills up-to-date. In fact only 15% of employees surveyed said they were satisfied with the training they received from employers, a trend that will not only affect the output of the business or department, but also morale.

Employee satisfaction can be difficult to measure, but a proven way to raise it is by investing in staff development. For businesses like those in the UNITE survey, reluctant to train and happy to let their staff stagnate in their present roles with out-of-date skills sets, the opposite is true. This is especially the case in the ever changing world of IT where staff can easily feel out of touch with the latest revolution in business IT.

In a recent survey by Computer Weekly (http://www.computerweekly.com/blogs/inside-outsourcing/2011/01/half-of-uk-it-professionals-have-received-no-training-in-last-five-years.html) the level of this discontent was revealed. Over a quarter of the IT professionals who took part predicted that they wouldn’t be working in the sector in five years time with around 50% complaining they had received no training at all in the previous five years.

IT training for non-IT staff

For IT the problem extends beyond specialist IT staff and into the wider employee base. Mass migrations to new systems such as Windows 7 or Office 365 primarily impact the end-user, ie every employee within an organisation. For such large scale projects it is imperative that IT and HR teams work together, supported by experienced IT education specialists such as DES to develop the skills of non-IT staff. This requires clear lines of communication between department heads in order to manage a programme that could see tens, hundreds, or even thousands return to the classroom (virtual or otherwise).

By moving IT training outside the IT department and into the main workforce, organisations can ensure everyone in the business has the skills to properly use new technology before it comes into play. This reduces stress for non-IT staff who find technology changes challenging, and frees up streamlined IT teams to focus on strategic technology decisions that need to be made and implemented. This two-level approach to training is the key to a successful IT upgrade and delivers significant improvements in output and productivity.

Pole position for the upturn

In our experience with DES customers, successful organisations recognise that an investment in training equips their workforce with the skills needed to cope with today’s challenges. More importantly, these businesses are best placed to seize business opportunities that emerge as the economy starts to grow again.

Whilst this approach is gaining momentum, it is still concerning that IT training budgets remain one of the first areas to be cut when business operations are streamlined, and IT training for end-users is so rarely considered an essential component of technology upgrades. If organisations are to successfully compete in an increasingly IT-reliant world that is starved of new IT talent to maintain it, then they need to invest in developing the IT capabilities of all their staff.

About the author:

Martin Hill is EMEA Sales Director for Dell Education Services

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