Time to train

IT training companies are having a tough time, and ambitious ITers could turn the situation to their advantage, writes Roisin...

IT training companies are having a tough time, and ambitious ITers could turn the situation to their advantage, writes Roisin Woolnough

Training is one of the first areas to be hit when the economy takes a dive, a fact that is being felt in IT training companies at the moment. "I have been in training for over 20 years and I have never seen a worse time for it," says Colin Steed, chief executive at the Institute of IT Training. "Training companies are really struggling and have been since this time last year. Even the big companies that normally do very well are doing very badly and suffering massive losses."

When Pardo Fox, a consultancy that provides market intelligence to the IT training industry, asked 100 IT training organisations what their greatest challenge was in the second half of last year, more than 25% said "survival". Other responses included "staying in business" and "dealing with the speed of the slowdown when all our planning was based on 30% growth".

A lot of organisations have not been able to get the volume of students they need and have folded or been swallowed up by larger companies. Some are still suffering from the collapse of the Government's Individual Learning Account scheme - and they are the lucky ones that survived.

Aine McGuire, business director at Pygmalion, a Microsoft-certified training partner, estimates that training activity is down by between 20% and 30%. "The training market has been very difficult for everyone as companies are culling people and cutting down on training," she says.

In recent years UK companies had been spending an average of £361 per person on training, according to figures from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Not so anymore, says Graham Scrivener, sales director at Intuition Computer Training. "One corporate client told me their training budget has been cut to £89 per person per year. They are only doing the really critical requirements," he says.

This is mixed news for IT professionals, for whom training is a top priority. Steed thinks the current climate can actually be a very good time to invest in training because many organisations are so desperate to sell courses that they are reducing their prices.

"It is definitely a buyer's market, and you can get some very good deals from training organisations at the moment," he says. "I heard that QA, for example, is slashing the prices of some of its Microsoft-certified courses - and I mean slashing the prices. But now is the time to go for it - don't wait for things to pick up because prices will go up again."

Both companies and individuals have the chance to buy training at discounted rates, but many employers are not seizing the opportunity. Anyone who feels they need some extra training will have to make a very good business case to their bosses if they are to be persuaded to part with any cash. You will have to show that the training is essential to the success of a project, your performance at work and how you contribute to the overall business.

"Companies are only sending people on training courses when they will definitely be using the skills," says Wendy Devolder, sales manager of the training division at IT services company Valtech. "Whereas before people were being sent on courses as a retention tool, now training is much more business-driven."

Steed says a significant number of companies are looking at taking training back in-house or forming partnerships with training organisations to provide tailor-made courses. "Companies are looking at doing training on site, instead of sending people away on scheduled courses," he says.

This in itself saves money because firms do not have to fork out for accommodation, travel expenses and the other costs incurred when employees go on residential courses. The real saving for employers, however, is reducing the time employees spend away from their desks and away from their work. The average length of a course has got shorter and intensive one or three-day programmes are being favoured over two-week courses.

Companies are also opting for e-learning as a way to keep costs down and keep employees working while they learn. ITers are finding that employers want them to slot bite-sized chunks of e-learning into their working day to minimise the impact on profits.

Paul Butler, chief executive at e-learning company KnowledgePool, thinks the shift towards e-learning will continue.

"I think we will see a continuing and steady growth in successful e-learning companies," he says. Despite this prediction, many smaller e-learning companies have suffered badly in the past few months and some have gone bust.

The overall trend is towards "blended learning" - a mix of traditional classroom-based training and e-learning. Steed says the most popular training programme offered by the Institute of IT Training at the moment is it certified e-learning professional course. "It is about learning how to tutor people online," he explains. "We had 13,000 applications in the first month. A lot of major corporations are interested."

It is the high-level courses that are proving more resistant to the downturn. Employers are concentrating on business-critical applications and, because many of them are no longer employing contractors, they are having to generate those skills in-house. Butler thinks this could explain why project management courses are faring better than other courses. "Organisations have moved away from hiring high-flyers to work on projects and many of them are putting their own individuals through management training. One of our most successful courses at the moment is called 'first-time manager'," he says.

This change in the way companies are operating could provide an ideal opportunity for aspiring IT managers to move into more strategic roles, such as project management. If there is no one in your department with the required skill set and there is a recruitment and contractor freeze on, you may never get a better chance to get some new skills and manoeuvre yourself up the career ladder.

Predictions are that the IT industry will start to pick up at the beginning of next year, and the training industry will follow soon afterwards, so now is the time to make your move.

The most popular IT training courses
  • Project management
  • Web development skills, such as Java and C++
  • Windows NT
  • Dreamweaver.

Source: Colin Steed, Institute of IT Training

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment