Let's make 2014 the year of training


At this time of year we in the tech media see, and share, a lot of predictions on what lies ahead for IT. Forecasts for 2014 have been very predictable so far: huge growth and investments in mobile technology, security, big data and cloud computing. Unfortunately, I have only seen two recent reports that include what is unquestionably one of the most important investments of all--training.

I would therefore like to put at the top of my Christmas wish list the desire to see wide-scale and large-scale investment in IT training in 2014. The IT industry has been bemoaning a lack of qualified workers to handle the tasks at hand. Now it's time to do something about it. The efforts should take two directions: investing in the training of existing staff; and investing in the training of the future IT workforce.

Companies need to maintain healthy investments in internal training programs to keep their workers current, productive and content. Training is one of the most important benefits that a company can offer, but most don't provide enough. Next to having access to rewarding work, IT pros routinely cite training as the most important workplace topic to them. In addition, companies should look for opportunities to help expand the IT workforce in this country. Scholarship programs are an obvious, and easy, way to help. Microsoft has greatly expanded its efforts to train students in computer programming skills, courtesy of a new partnership with Washington State.

Until two weeks ago, Microsoft was running an IT Academy to offer high school students courses that focused on job-ready skills, and covering such topics as basic web navigation to advanced programming and database development, the website Washington House Democrats noted.

A new partnership with the state enables the software giant to now expand the program. Online courses are being made available at more than 380 public colleges, community colleges, technical colleges and tribal libraries across Washington State. "The expansion was made possible by a $1.5 million investment that the legislature made during the 2013 legislative session," the web site noted. "It's just one example of House Democrat's commitment to investing in STEM education for Washingtonians." The move comes at a time when there is growing call for more investments in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). While there continues to be emotional debate on whether this country suffers from a labor shortage in the technology field, there is no disagreement that we suffer from a skills shortage.

Vivian R. Pickard, president of the General Motors Foundation, recently noted that, "While STEM employers are eager to hire, the number of students pursuing STEM-related majors continues to shrink, especially among women and minorities. Just 16 percent of American high school seniors are both proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career, and only 25 percent of STEM graduates are women. Programs that encourage and help fund secondary education are critical to help students take advantage of the wide array of opportunities in STEM fields."

Pickard goes on to note that as the baby boomer generation enters retirement age, the gap between the number of STEM workers needed and students with those skills will widen. "Just as developing new STEM talent is vital to our nation's future, scholarship funding is crucial to providing our best and brightest your minds opportunities to succeed," Pickard says. "Scholarships are now the top source of funding for college costs, and are vital to many families as tuition rates continue to climb."

So where do corporate executives place the blame on today's skills gap: Squarely with the educational system. As noted in an article on FierceCIO's sister site FierceBigData recently, "Senior executives believe the skills gap has less to do with complacency on the part of American workers and more to do with the U.S. education system and costs associated with in-house training programs."

The FierceBigData article cites findings from a recent study on where corporate executives feel that American workers fall short in terms of needed skills: "More than half (59 percent) of senior executives do not feel colleges/universities in the U.S. offer curriculums that prepare graduates with the skills needed for today's workforce." Further, "Among those senior executives who believe there is a U.S. workforce skills gap, the vast majority (89 percent) thinks that corporate apprenticeship or training programs could help alleviate the skills gap in the U.S. workforce." So there is wide-spread agreement that we have an IT skills shortage, and that we have a deficient educational pipeline to correct that shortage. That puts the burden on IT to fix the problem. So as corporate and IT directors finalize their budgets for 2014, hopefully they can find a way to put training investments near the top of their wish lists as well. - David