The skills gamble

ITers are only as good as their skill sets but knowing what skill will be most wanted in six months' time is a constant guessing...

ITers are only as good as their skill sets but knowing what skill will be most wanted in six months' time is a constant guessing game. Nick Langley considers how best to stay in demand.

Training specialists, with their need to plan ahead and invest in trainers, courseware and facilities, have been struggling to survive in the turmoil of the industry downturn. The first half of this year has been littered with stories of training company collapses and struggling firms being picked up at bargain-basement prices by the survivors.

If training specialists have been struggling, how can IT industry professionals hope to make the right decisions about investing the time and money needed to keep their skills up-to-date?

The latest quarterly review from E-Skills UK, the national IT skills development organisation, says, "The accelerated pace of change means that the skills which are in demand [in IT industries] change much faster than in any other industry."

The more volatile end of the market has lost its glamour and much of its premium. But while Web specialists may be the most high-profile casualties of the dotcom crash, more mundane occupations have also suffered. The Computer Weekly/SSP Quarterly Survey of Employment Data and Trends found demand down 84% in the first quarter of this year, and the Information Technology Association of America's (ITAA) May 2002 Skills Report says, "It is technical support workers who were most likely to be let go within the last year."

Get it wrong and you could kiss goodbye to the £3,000 to £5,000 cost of traditional classroom-based training or an intensive "bootcamp" course. And who can predict how the picture will change during the six months that it is likely to take you to acquire a new skill if you study in your own time while still employed?

Although online or CD-based courses are cheaper, it takes tremendous discipline to structure in the 10 to 20 hours a week these courses demand.

The best way of protecting yourself against the fickleness of IT industry fashion is to acquire generic, rather than proprietary skills.

At the start of the dotcom boom, the late Gordon Ewan, director of E-Skills UK's predecessor, the IT National Training Organisation, warned about the risks of highly focused proprietary training given by software suppliers at the expense of the more general principals underlying all software.

"One of the characteristics of our industry is that people need a broad underpinning knowledge," he said. "If you go down the generalist route, it is then very easy to graft on the latest version of Oracle or Microsoft. But if you come down the Microsoft tube, it is much more difficult to switch to a different development platform."

This view is echoed in a recent E-Skills review, which says, "Inevitably, software practitioners will face a constant struggle to maintain their skills as technologies and applications advance. Thus those who have a good general understanding of software technology will be best able to adapt and will clearly fare better than those with limited specialist skills."

With SQL, which is consistently among the Computer Weekly/SSP top five skills, you could go on to work with any of the major relational databases. Train in Unix and you could specialise in Linux, Solaris, HP-UX or IBM AIX.

With current league leader C++ under your belt you could easily add Visual C++ or gain a flying start with Java. There are many "Java for C++ developer" courses, and if the current decline in demand for Java continues, you will have something solid to fall back on.

XML, which is almost universally adopted by software suppliers, has joined the ranks of these generic skills. But this is something you should be adding to your skill set anyway. "The spread of XML means that it will quickly become a required skill for all application software builders," says E-Skills UK.

The certification trap
You might consider getting your existing or new skills certified. However, there is still some scepticism about the value of certification. While it does provide a benchmark for technical knowledge, it does not say anything about your ability to apply it in a real-world situation. Supplier certification is also considered by some to be a money-making racket.

Over the past year we have seen some suppliers threatening to withdraw recognition for earlier releases of their product even though they are still in use. This is forcing IT professionals that want to stay certified to go on courses to update their skills beyond what they actually need.

Until recently, most employers prized experience above paper qualifications, although if what happens in the US happens here, this is about to change.

"Overall, certification has grown in significance for each of the job categories, while general job experience has declined in importance as an entry-level skill credential," says the ITTA.

However, as a general rule, you will not be able to break into a new industry sector on the back of a recently-learned skill. For example, unless you are a Sybase or Oracle database administrator, or have some other rare and prized ability, you cannot break into the City without a financial sector background.

People found this out the hard way in the late 1990s when enterprise resource planning (ERP) products such as SAP were commanding four-figure weekly and sometimes daily rates for contractors. Hopefuls clamoured to get SAP training, but many who went through it found themselves being turned down because of their lack of experience.

In practice, no one with less than two years' experience was likely to find work as a SAP contractor. After a couple of years in the doldrums, SAP has jumped from 76th to 13th place in the Computer Weekly/SSP skills league. But unless you already have experience with an ERP product, you still should not be tempted to spend your own money on SAP training.

Avoiding the "can't get a job without experience, can't get experience without a job" trap is something that IT employers have yet to get to grips with. They need people with skills but have a preference for people that have been trained by someone else.

If you have the time and commitment, one solution is to volunteer to work for a charity to build up your real-world experience. Or you could take a job using your old skill, offering your new one as a second string, and gain on-the-job experience that way. And you still occasionally see adverts from employers offering to cross-train new recruits in the skills they need.

However, before you decide to invest in technical training, consider whether improving your "soft" or management skills might not be a better way forward. Some surveys indicate that employers are most interested in IT people who can also offer team-leading or project management abilities.

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