Skills shortages: learning to get rid of the vicious circle

Computer telephony integration is here and so is the skills shortage. Nick Langley examines what the industry and Government are...

Computer telephony integration is here and so is the skills shortage. Nick Langley examines what the industry and Government are doing about training

Blame the Eighties. Blame privatisation. Blame downsizing. The removal of BT's monopoly in 1981 may have stimulated competition and the development of new communications technologies, but it was disastrous for the entry of new people into the telecoms industry.

Skilled staff shed by BT quickly found new jobs with the plethora of new telecoms businesses which sprang up - manufacturers, service providers, consultancies, cabling and installation specialists, and competitive telecoms operators. But as a consequence apprenticeships and training programmes were cut. Colleges of further education cut their telecoms courses too, not wishing to add to the pool of newly qualified but unemployed young people. The result is that by the late 1990s, the average telecoms engineer was in early middle age.

That's been changing in recent years, with the growth of organisations like NTO, an industry body founded by BT, Mercury and Nortel, which works on behalf of telecoms employers to anticipate and meet the industry's skills needs. works with the Government to ensure that National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and the Modern Apprenticeship and National Traineeship schemes are properly geared to the industry's requirements.

The new focus on vocational training was long overdue. Christos Orfanidis, a modern apprentice at Nortel Networks, says he took City & Guilds vocational courses at college as well as a GNVQ programme. "Both programmes had little relevance to the world of work, and have no comparison to what is done within Nortel Networks."

These schemes are not simply reviving the telecoms industry's old training programmes. NTO warns that having significantly reduced the size of their workforces, employers require people who are far more flexible and multi-skilled than was the case in the past. It's early days for such schemes, however, and meanwhile the skills shortage has grown acute.

At the same time the demand for telecoms services has been booming, data networking and telecoms have been moving closer together. We now take services based on computer telephony integration (CTI), such as call centres, for granted. With the development of Voice over IP (VoIP), the convergence between data and voice communications will be complete, with both kinds of service running over the same network.

However, while the two communications technologies have been coming together, the cultural gap between telecoms and IT remains large. "One common misapprehension in the marketplace is that the voice network is easy, whereas the data world is where the smarts are," says Mark Stancombe, a provider of network performance solutions who is regional manager for Northern Europe at Quallaby. "This is partly fuelled by the fact that when people pick up a telephone they always get dial tone, ergo the voice network must be simple."

Stancombe warns that too many organisations assume that what the traditional IT department can get away with in terms of service offerings can be directly translated into the telecommunications arena.

"The bottom line is that corporate networks, however critical, are not usually subject to anything like the pressures of a telco network. This highlights a potentially huge void between an IT person who has experience within the telecommunications field and one who has grown up in a corporate IT environment."

Gone are the days when a solid understanding of bridges, routers and Lan topologies in an IP-centric network were sufficient for data networking. As voice moves onto the IP network, Stancombe warns that IT managers will need to be up to speed with the real-world requirements of voice packets being carried across a data network. "Things like guaranteed bandwidth, latency, jitter all come into play most significantly with voice. As other technologies like video-on-demand and videoconferencing over data are deployed, the IT person will need to become familiar with all aspects of traffic engineering rather than purely deployment and up-time considerations."

Stancombe is not alone in contesting the widespread assumption that the data networking world is bringing solutions to the stick-in-the-mud world of telecoms. Robin Russell, IP product manager for Inter-Tel Europe, which makes Internet telephony, CTI, voice processing and software networking technologies. "Most convergent dealers are looking for MCSE accredited engineers. This enables dealers to install and maintain Microsoft networks. The downside to this is most IT/data engineers believe that data is king, and telecoms is not hard to learn. This, unfortunately is wrong.

"Telephony is as complex as data, and requires a certain type of engineer to decipher it. The new generation of telecoms engineers who came of age in the computer era are more suitable to a convergent role, but with no true apprenticeship to telecoms, such as BT had in days past, telecoms engineering is passed in an informal way from senior engineer to trainee engineer. What is needed is a training programme similar to that for data engineers to bring more computer literate young trainees into telecoms/convergence."

Who should take charge of such training programmes? The industry seems split down the middle. "IT managers with a background in data Internet working appear to be taking the lead in future technologies, such as converged networks," says Jeff Bowen, technical services manager at network and cabling specialist Syncra. "Telecoms managers are frequently viewed as purveyors of tried-and-tested technology rather than the more advanced and progressive solutions that are becoming more prevalent in the marketplace."

But David Plummer, managing director of IT and telecoms recruitment consultancy Triage, says control should fall to those who understand the business and stand to gain the most from the developments. "In a convergence situation it is the telecoms managers who take ownership of the projects."

Exactly what skills are we talking about? "Once IT and telecoms converge, design skills become imperative for the architecture and infrastructure required to carry them," says Bowen. "Specialists with skills in the differing areas, such as CTI, IVR (interactive voice recognition), ACD (automated call distribution) and call logging and management will become sought-after. It seems that those with a background in data are more able to embrace the technologies it is converging with than vice versa.

Companies that currently offer both traditional voice solutions and data networking products are in a good position to combine the necessary skill sets, and should already have engineers in place to offer an end-to-end solution.

At Triage, Plummer finds that the hottest demand is for wireless application protocol (Wap), IP, packet switching and VoIP, backed up by more traditional skills like C and C++, Unix and embedded technologies.

Caroline Crawford, manager of networking and communications divisions at IT recruitment specialist Elan Computing, says convergence is leading to increased demand for synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH) experience. "SDH is fast becoming the standard technology for companies transferring large amounts of data quickly between globally-linked sites, and nearly all telcos offering fixed network services to customers will employ this technology. Typical skill-sets would include planning, commissioning, design, integration, network control and technical support. We are also seeing a lot of demand for 3G and UMTS skills, particularly in relation to testing and integration."

ISPs and other technology companies increasingly need staff who have knowledge across the full spectrum of communications technologies, Crawford says. "Our clients are looking for more and more 'cross skilling' as the Internet is made more accessible via mobile phones and hand held devices."

The need for experienced staff - what Rob Wirszycz, the former director-general of the Computing Services & Software Association, calls "oven-ready people" - suggests that companies will expect to be taking the people they need from their competitors. But poaching is hardly an answer to an industry-wide skills shortfall. As companies bite the bullet and come to terms with the need to train, Crawford says they will be taking on more new graduates. "Companies often benefit from employing graduate trainees, as they often bring a fresh approach which can aid problem solving, and have no past work-culture experience to influence their judgements."

But the prime repository of skills lies in the employees companies already have. Telecoms and datacoms staff will need to be trained in one another's disciplines. Suitable off-the-shelf training may not be easy to find, however. In telecoms in particular training has often been provided by equipment suppliers, but Bowen warns that such courses may be too far geared to their own products to meet the open, standards-based requirements of the Internet. Plummer says the answer is in-house training, or finding a suitably matched training partner.

Charles Chambers, senior consultant at strategic telecoms consultancy Quotient Communications, says, "Where once highly structured training courses could deliver suitable people to meet industry's needs, the rate of technology change means that such a system cannot keep pace with the demands for the new technology. In such an environment, on-the-job training is virtually essential."

There's a substantial body of thought which says that the industry can meet its convergence skills needs by retraining the people it already has, or even that the skills already exist within organisations, but need to be better managed and utilised.

"Despite the hype, there are plenty of people out there with IT skills and plenty also with telecoms network skills," says John Ford, associate director at CMG's Telecommunications and eBusiness Division, which has provided services to 80% of European telcos. "Over the past few years, however, they have all consistently failed to deliver the kind of integrated applications which successfully leverage the undoubted capabilities of both technologies."

This goes against the accepted wisdom. IDC, for example, predicts a shortfall of 600,000 networking professionals across western Europe by 2002. This figure is based on an expected requirement for 1.6 million network staff. If the situation is not rectified IDC says we could be in for a European slump as businesses fail to optimise their growing success and existing assets because of inadequate infrastructure.

"IDC rightly says that training and development needs are becoming acute," says analyst Robin Bloor. "However, it is well known in networking circles, as in others, that real experience has far greater value than the classroom learning by rote that is becoming commonplace for supplier-sponsored certification programmes. Street knowledge and management experience tells us that some individuals, qualified or otherwise, are worth their weight in gold-plated terminators. Identify these people within your organisation. Treat them well, pay them well and keep their skills current. Involve them in infrastructure design decisions and strategic roll-out programmes. Or leave them in the workshop, but don't be surprised when your network management policy is jettisoned because people are too busy fighting fires."

Bloor adds that Internet-based services may provide answers to the skills "crisis". "It's now possible to outsource services to companies and individuals literally on the other side of the globe. Such outsourcing of both systems and services is implicitly cutting the requirement for local infrastructure, hence the need for engineering support can be reduced, leaving businesses to concentrate on their core offering."

Mark Rivington, marketing director of RiverSoft, also feels that businesses should be looking to technology, not new heads. "Rather than looking at how to increase the number of skilled workers, the answer lies in decreasing the number of workers by automating routine networking functions."

RiverSoft offers network infrastructure management technology that manages the network without human intervention. "By automating routine network management tasks, companies are able to deploy expensive, highly skilled networking staff more effectively. This has the effect that not as many IT/telecoms specialists are required, and that those who are employed spend less time undertaking manual - often mundane - routine jobs."

Barry Bonnett, vice-president for Sonus Networks, a supplier producer of carrier-class VoIP telephony infrastructure, agrees, "Operators have two alternatives: to invest in their teams in order to attract and retain them, or invest in technology which reduces the level of skilled intervention required. Reliable networks are a reflection of quality engineering work by motivated personnel, judged not on the quantity but the quality of their work. It's well known that poor installation and fault repair establishes a vicious cycle of network problems which can take years to resolve in large carriers."

Bonnet says dealing with labour shortages is not simple, and relates as much to technological and managerial strategies as to HR issues like recruitment and salary levels. "Happy, motivated and fulfiled people will do a quality job, and attract friends to a company, creating a virtuous circle."

Accredited training

Marconi's training centres in Coventry and Liverpool have both been accredited to standards set by NTO the UK's national training organisation for the telecommunications industry.

Each acts as an international 'telecoms university', providing a range of 300 courses covering technologies including the latest access and transport technologies, ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) and IP (Internet protocol) switching and routing, as well as SDH and Marconi's radio and optical access technologies.

Last year, the two centres delivered a 23,000 delegate days of training to Marconi's own people, plus another 9,000 days to staff of customers from around the world.

Read more on IT technical skills