More than any other profession, IT requires its practitioners to undergo reskilling throughout their careers. IT is so broad, and its rate of change so rapid, that continually expanding and updating skills is an essential part of being an IT professional.
The National Computing Centre's best practice guide to IT recruitment and retention warned, "No IT practitioner should expect an employer to provide them with a lifetime career, but they will expect opportunities to progress their career over the next few years."
Training is often considered a perk, but it must be selective said the guide's author John Eary.
"The practice of sending staff on courses as a form of reward, or because it is 'their turn' is still prevalent," he said. This is not cost-effective.
"Training is expensive both in cost of provision and in loss of staff availability during training - it should be driven by business need and regarded as an investment that generates a return through skills acquisition."
But not training can be even more expensive. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's survey on training and development last year showed that 95% of employers see training as a way to improve retention, but also a way to avoid recruitment costs and reduce sickness absence.
"Training is a key retention tool," said Nick Russell, associate director, consultancy, at The Work Foundation. "It is part of the employee's psychological contract of employment - ensuring that they get the opportunity to develop and improve their skills."
Offering training is increasingly a hygiene factor, he said - something that will tick the box for prospective and existing IT staff.
For Best Places to Work in IT 2005 winners and runners up, training was an essential factor for being a best place to work in IT.
"We consider training a fundamental requirement for all employees," said Tim Dadswell, IT manager at engineering company WS Atkins. "Development of skills is key for the individual to realise their own potential and to highlight the confidence the group places in their work and its willingness to invest in their personal growth.
"Our chosen training courses might be predominantly concerned with the latest technologies but we are also placing more and more emphasis on improving the character of the employee and employer."
At the Department for International Development, head of IT Simon Jones is equally adamant.
"We have a commitment to staff training and development for the current job and for future career development, including a mentoring scheme and formal training courses," he said.
IT services company ITRM also invests heavily in training. Head of IT Dave White said, "We employ a part-time trainer, and we also have a partnership with a national training group."
Stephen Coleman, regional IT manager at cosmetics company Avon, said, "We firmly believe in equipping IT staff with the best skills and general training available."
Paddy Maguire, service delivery manager at educational IT supplier Classroom 2000, which has 102 IT staff, said, "Our target for staff training is 500 days a year - this is usually exceeded. We have a target to have 10% of staff on self-initiated courses: we support these by paying fees and allowing time for lectures, studying and examinations."
At healthcare IT supplier Newchurch IT employees embark on a programme of continuous professional development to update professional knowledge and improve personal competence, said training co-ordinator Nick Harrison. "This is achieved through internal and external training, including a comprehensive mandatory two-day induction course for all new starters. Training needs are identified through performance management and personal choice," he said.
The approach to IT training is increasingly flexible.
At software company Cobweb, for example, Daniel Germain, technical operations manager, said, "Training is provided within the company with a series of workshops and training sessions, external training is catered for and senior technical staff will attend at least one course per year. Exam fees, training resources and books are provided at all levels."
At ITsupplier Compuware, e-learning is available for all staff, whose personal development plans use a blend of formal training, self-study, exam certification, coaching, study leave and on-the-job training, and at the land registry, training courses are offered at times to suit part-time staff.
There is also growing emphasis on non-technical training to develop both personal and business skills, as IT increasingly becomes a partner for business.
Avon, for example, offers its IT staff non-IT training opportunities, such as courses organised by the company's human resources department, including strategy essentials and assertive skills, said Coleman.
Providing training in these softer skills can provide more than just IT staff better able to support business strategy.
"Where such training is cathartic and helpful for the individuals themselves, their nature is to have a personal and emotional impact on staff which they will transfer to the company in terms of increased loyalty," said Russell.
Training - going beyond the basics
- The pace of technological development means continual reskilling of IT staff is essential
- Although expensive to provide, a company's commitment to training is a key differentiator in the IT skills market, both for recruitment and retention
- Training should be selective, on the basis of business need, not used as a perk for staff
- Investing in staff skills and development engages loyalty and commitment
- Although employees can sometimes be required to repay training costs if they leave too soon, this is a general risk for employers and requires an exchange of trust
- Training can be delivered in a wide variety of methods to suit both employee and employer needs
- IT staff increasingly require training in interpersonal and business skills, not just technical updates.