Commentary: How to solve the skills crisis

Could teaching 'Routing' as 'fourth R' in our schools solve the skills crisis?

Cisco held a media lunch last Friday at which the company, in the nicest way possible, threw up its hands in despair at its inability to solve the skills crisis.

The company detailed the many fine initiatives it runs to try and get more people trained and ready to push packets over the intertubes. A couple of students who had passed through one of those efforts, at Sydney's Petersham TAFE, spoke highly of the quality of the curriculum, teaching and learning materials. The company spoke of the $US300 million it has invested in these efforts worldwide over a decade and successes like the CCNA accreditation being taught in some Australian High Schools. It mentioned collaboration with other vendors to try and entice kiddies into technology careers and an admirable event it ran for secondary schools careers advisors to talk up the industry and other outreach programs.

Most of these things have been going on for a while, but the company now says the crisis is getting critical, because without people to keep the bits flowing through its kit, business will grind to a halt. And that halt is nearer than ever, the company says, now that we have all decided it is fun to download video over the same networks designed to bring bursty data to the desktop but which have now been pressed into service for telephony and all manner of other 2.0 applications.

Networks will soon be flooded with all this visual stuff, the company says, so skilled packet-wranglers will be even more important than ever.

The company's Kevin Bloch even alleged that the company has agreement to conduct certain projects in government but they are on hold for lack of Canberrans willing to string the Cat 5 together into a solution.

That admission was revealing, not least because we imagine Cisco is yet to bank any cheques from Government agencies that do not have the people needed to build new IT. So let's not kid ourselves that Cisco is entirely altruistic in its desire to talk up the need to do something about skills shortage.

Nor is the vendor (or the rest of the industry) blameless for making people hard to come by. The event was notable for being peppered with talk of securing "smart" people to come into networking. An old boss of mine once said that in business you have to assume that you end up with average people doing averagely well. Yet it seems that technology still needs the best and brightest, which says a bit about product complexity.

Nonetheless, Cisco feels that the best and brightest should feel that networking is not a bad place for them to start their careers, especially given that our industry has spawned millionaires by the truckload.

Which it has. But how many of them emerged from CCNA training courses?

Perhaps that's the ultimate point. Networking is a potentially lucrative career. It is probably a safe career, given that networks continue to grow.

It is not yet a glamorous career. The glamorous people in IT almost certainly didn't need to do a CCNA. They got IT far more deeply and profoundly than that and skipped straight to innovation.

Cisco hopes it can make IT glamorous by promoting the fact that these days networking is less likely to involve being locked in a data center and more likely to involve cool technologies like social networking and mobile phones.

We sincerely hope that networking does involve that kind of work and that the skills shortage get a bit better: there's no need for a glut that would depress wages, is there now?

Cisco hopes that collaborative, industry-wide promotion can help turn things around.

It also hopes that as the nation and the economy become more wired, society wakes up to the importance of the skills that make networks hum, with the result that routing even finds its way into school curricula.

We're not entirely sure if routing would sit well as a fourth "˜R' beside Reading, Writing and "˜Rithmetic.

Yet if even Cisco is having trouble with this stuff, who are we to argue?

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