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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Facilitating Career Changes Into IT


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Three initiatives undertaken to provide more immediate paths for individuals wanting to make career changes to IT are described here. Although similar efforts are surely being made elsewhere, these examples are offered as a springboard for additional creative ventures to ease and enhance the movement of talented non-IT workers to IT.

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University/Corporate Initiative: Foundation Computing Technology Program

In response to the growing shortage of technology workers in 1997, several businesses entered into a partnership with Illinois State University (ISU). A certificate program in Foundation Computing Technology (nicknamed the FCP) was created to prepare underemployed workers from non-computing disciplines for the IT work force in a relatively short amount of time, and minimize the risk, financial burden, and time commitment to these potential candidates. The FCP is supported entirely by corporate partners and generates sufficient residual revenues to pay for itself.

Participants are recruited in the local labor market and careful applicant screening, including aptitude testing, is conducted to ensure acceptance of individuals highly likely to succeed. Graduates of the program have ranged in age from 25 to 65 and include teachers, construction workers, and ministers. Participants must quit their current employment to begin the program, but a corporate partner pays them at a nearly full-salary rate during the full-time (7.5 hours per day, Monday through Friday) 1213-week training program. Upon FCP completion, the new IT employees are placed on staff at the partnering client at a salary equivalent to that of a new four-year computing graduate. FCP training is developed and delivered by ISU faculty, staff, and full-time technology trainers, and the content primarily involves Cobol programming and systems analysis. Efforts are made to assimilate participants into the client's corporate culture through events like pizza parties and road trips to corporate offices.

From its inception in 1997 through December 2000, FCP has created 305 IT workers for the local labor market. Due to numerous quality applicants and the selective screening process, only 16 students have dropped out or not been certified and employed. The best success indicator is likely the fact that clients have continued to sponsor FCP. Managers report that FCP graduates are more mature, prepared, and retainable than traditional newly minted computing graduates. Despite the up-front training and participant salary/benefit costs, partnering clients argue that because FCP graduates are already mature workers vested in the local community, they are less expensive to recruit and retain in the long run.


Progressive firms have long recognized the value of employees who understand both the business of the company and technology.


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Government/University Initiative: IT Worker Bootcamp

In 1998, the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) formally designated IT work force preparation as a top priority and recommended that universities develop innovative strategies to address it. In response, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) proposed an IT Worker Bootcamp to create a new source of technology workers, and the proposal was funded in May 2000.

The Bootcamp aims to prepare individuals with demonstrated analytical and communications skills to enter the IT work force. Each applicant must hold a bachelor's degree, score well on a programming aptitude test, and meet with Bootcamp instructors for a personal interview. As with ISU's FCP program, no credit hours are conferred through the Bootcamp, but certificates reflecting successful completion of each subject area are awarded.

The first Bootcamp was held in the summer of 2000 and consisted of six modules: systems analysis, Visual Basic, end-user support, database design, network management and Web design, and Cobol. Bootcamp is taught by School of Business faculty at SIUE. Sessions are held for 7.5 hours per day, Monday through Friday, for an intensive, eight-week period. Tuition for each of the 29 participants was held to an affordable $1,250, due to subsidies from the IBHE.

A major factor contributing to the success of the Bootcamp was support from corporate members of the SIUE School of Business Technology Advisory Board. Boeing and Federal Reserve Bank each enrolled a current employee in the Bootcamp program, providing a chance to re-skill for opportunities in IT within their firms. Edward Jones Investments donated two scholarships to cover tuition of participants in need. In the end, Bootcamp graduates were snatched up to fill entry-level IT positions at several firms, including May Company, Union Pacific Technologies, and Accenture.

Preliminary feedback on the job performance of Bootcamp graduates indicates the analytical and communication skills and maturity of these workers provide them with an edge. Dave Mayo, Director of MIS at Edward Jones Investments, hired two Bootcamp graduates and reports he is impressed with how quickly they have learned their responsibilities. Josh Hileman, a former medical research statistician and now an IT professional at Edward Jones Investments, tells us: "The Bootcamp opened doors. I had looked at IT jobs, but did not have the technical skills to get hired. I would not have made the move into IT without this vehicle." Success with the first Bootcamp convinced the IBHE to continue support for the program, and additional Bootcamps are scheduled at SIUE.

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Corporate/University Initiative: Internal Corporate Programs

Progressive firms have long recognized the value of employees who understand both the business of the company and technology. Firms such as Country Insurance and Financial Services (Country), headquartered in Bloomington, Illinois, have implemented internal programs to facilitate the transition of selected employees from business areas into the IS group. Country's first formal effort began in the early 1990s and was typical of programs launched by other firms during this time period. The Gateway program at Country identified non-IS employees possessing aptitude and desire for technology work and provided training to prepare them for entry-level Cobol programmer positions. An extensive selection process included aptitude testing, screening by HR personnel, and interviews with an IS manager. This was a lengthy program, initially lasting 18 months but later shortened to 12 months with a portion of the training scheduled after the move to IS.

As the application platform at Country shifted from mainframe to client/server, activity in the Gateway program subsided and Country instituted a new internal program. The Application Development University (ADU) began in 1998. According to Dave Phillips, IS Manager at Country, the ADU initially served as a tool to update IS employees from mainframe to client/server, thus enabling IS employees to re-skill and fill staffing needs in newer technologies. Country also began to move select non-IS employees who were high performers in user roles on technology projects to IS to become Business Process Analysts (BPAs). As Phillips notes, "reengineering is very business-oriented and who better to know our business than those who have been working in it?" New BPAs complete the analysis portion of the ADU, including courses on analysis techniques, client/server testing, GUI design, and business process reengineering.

Although BPAs undertake only the analysis segment of the ADU, the full ADU program is a lockstep format lasting approximately 31 weeks, entered into by IS employees seeking to update their skills. The ADU utilizes in-house instructors (expert programmers and analysts) and contracts Illinois State University faculty for onsite delivery of topics such as operating systems and Java. Classes are conducted during business hours, 23 days per week, for approximately 23 hours per day, and involve homework and performance assessment.

Phillips reports positive feedback from employees who made the BPA move, as well as from IS employees who utilized the ADU to re-skill in newer technologies. He believes programs like the ADU provide a career change and enhancement vehicle that is crucial in training and retaining valued employees. "We give something back to our stafftime to build new skills and a way to do it," says Phillips.

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Conclusion

These initiatives provide examples of universities, businesses, and U.S. government agencies successfully working together to address the critical shortage of IT workers. An underlying theme of the programs is that motivated and talented individuals in other disciplines can learn technical skills and augment the IT work force. Moreover, these individuals often bring workplace wisdom, earnestness, and fresh perspectives to IT, making them valuable and welcome entries to the technology labor pool.

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References

1. Adelman, C. A Parallel Postsecondary Universe: The Certification System in Information Technology. Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, October 2000.

2. Agarwal, R. and Ferratt, T.W. Coping with Labor Scarcity in IT. Pinnaflex Educational Resources, Cincinnati, OH, 1999.

3. Office of Technology Policy. Update: America's New Deficit: The Shortage of Information Technology Workers. U.S. Department of Commerce, 1997; www.ta.doc.gov/reports/itsw/itsw.pdf.

4. Ridolfi, E.B. Executive commentary on foreign knowledge workers as a strategic staffing option. Academy of Management Executive 14, 4 (2000), 8384.

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Authors

Jo Ellen Moore (joemoor@siue.edu) is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Management and Information Systems at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, IL.

Susan E. Yager (syager@siue.edu) is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Management and Information Systems at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, IL.

Mary Sumner (msumner@siue.edu) is a professor in the Department of Computer Management and Information Systems and Assistant Dean in the School of Business at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, IL.

Galen B. Crow (gbcrow@ilstu.edu) is Director of Extended University at Illinois State University in Normal, IL.


©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0700  $5.00

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