Developing IT Skills 'To Go'

A national apprenticeship program combines classroom and on-the-job learning to develop skilled IT workers faster.

Yikes! Waldemar Ramos had just learned that the McDonald's Corp. marketing department needed a complete project plan within 30 days for an IT system supporting its new "I'm lovin' it" campaign.

"We didn't even have project requirements at that point," recalls Ramos, a project leader at McDonald's. Just the same, he was able to jump into action -- revising deliverables, figuring out the new requirements, calculating how the new priorities would affect other ongoing projects and drafting a revised statement of work. "The nice thing about it was we were able to meet the deadline, as well as complete the other projects," Ramos says.

Pretty impressive -- especially considering Ramos isn't even a full-fledged project manager and won't complete his training program until later this year. But this isn't your average IT training program, either.

In February, McDonald's launched an in-house apprenticeship program for IT project managers in collaboration with the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a global trade association. Ramos and nine other McDonald's apprentices have been learning to become project managers via in-house classroom instruction and workshops, as well as meetings with peers and mentors.

Most important, they're simultaneously heading up actual -- and sometimes quite crucial -- projects, with budgets ranging in size from $50,000 to several hundred million dollars. One apprentice has led 10 projects since the program began. In order to complete the program, the apprentices must master 37 skills to their mentors' satisfaction.

"It responds to what employers are asking for -- a combination of knowledge, certification and experience," says Neill Hopkins, vice president of workforce development and training at CompTIA. "This is the first system of its kind to directly relate IT training and certifications with actual on-the-job skill validation."

Or, put another way, "We're taking their day-to-day work and using that as a context for learning," says Alice Rowland, manager of information services organization development at McDonald's in Oak Brook, Ill.

McDonald's apprenticeship program is one of six pilots that CompTIA is helping to administer as part of the National Information Technology Apprenticeship System. NITAS, which debuts in early November, is aimed at building skills and credentials in at least seven IT tracks, the first two of which are IT Generalist and Project Management. All of the apprenticeships are designed to accelerate the transformation of learning classroom theory to using on-the-job IT best practices.

The idea for NITAS actually dates back to September 2001, when the U.S. Department of Labor took an interest in a national apprenticeship program for IT. It chose CompTIA to administer the program and so far has invested at least $3.8 million, which Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based CompTIA is matching with its own funds.

Since that time, the pilot programs have generated data to help CompTIA define which skills, educational credentials and certifications should make up the apprenticeship tracks. CompTIA has also formalized the system's infrastructure and work processes, trained consultants on how to help employers create their own apprenticeship programs and developed a marketing strategy to encourage large-scale adoption.

Bad Timing?

An apprenticeship program is obviously a boon for people who want to start IT careers and is good for filling gaps during an IT skills shortage. But is it a good idea to be developing new IT talent at a time when the economy is still sluggish and many skilled IT professionals are unemployed?

"If it were a couple of years ago, and you couldn't get the IT talent, it would be a much more interesting program," says Scott Hicar, CIO at Maxtor Corp. in Milpitas, Calif. "It might struggle in today's market because companies can find people with relevant experience." But Hicar has positive thoughts about the program, too. "It would help to have a standard accreditation because it gives you a neutral view of that person's experience," he says.

Jeff Markham, an IT recruiter at Robert Half Technology in San Francisco, a division of Robert Half International Inc., also questions whether the market is right for this sort of program. But Markham says he supports the notion that "if I can get training while getting work done, that's definitely cheaper."

The biggest benefit of the program in this economic climate may be to help retain high-quality workers and develop skills that are hard to find in the labor market, Markham says.

The way McDonald's has structured its project management apprenticeship could serve just that purpose. Its goal was to improve project management as a core skill area "through on-the-job learning," Rowland says. So far, she says, the program has shown "statistically significant improvement in meeting our business objectives," including meeting deadline, budget and customer-satisfaction goals.

All of McDonald's apprentices were already employees when they enrolled in the program. At least one -- project leader Dan Wilkinson, who has worked for 17 years at McDonald's in and outside of IT -- is using the program as a career-changing move.

Wilkinson, Ramos and eight others first completed three days of in-house training, followed by periodic workshops on areas requiring more depth, such as project life cycles and management skills. Meanwhile, they were assigned a four- to six-month project to complete.

"The sessions are taught at a level where you can pick things up and use them right now," Wilkinson says. A recent class on "slip charts," for instance, helped him figure out where he was falling behind on project dates and how to create a status report reflecting that. "There's no learning curve -- once you experience it, you own it," Wilkinson says. "It's another tool in your tool bag."

The apprentices were also given "qual cards," which list 37 measurable skills and were developed with the help of industry standards makers such as the Project Management Institute. "In my first meeting with my mentor, we discussed how the project I was working on applied to the qual card items," Wilkinson says. They chose the most applicable items to tackle, and before the next meeting, Wilkinson learned all he could about those items and applied them to his daily job.

As he developed competency in these skills, he demonstrated his abilities to his mentor, who checked these items off the card. When he works through the entire list, he's finished with the program. Wilkinson says he's halfway through.

CompTIA calls this contextual learning. "When the apprentice and mentor sit down for sign-off, it's always within the context of providing a deliverable to the company," says John Aaron, an independent consultant who's training to become a NITAS consultant. "It's very relevant to what they're accomplishing on the job."

Wilkinson meets with his mentor two or three times a week. Others, such as Ramos, meet once a week. "It's a great opportunity to ask questions while you're not being judged by a manager on what you're doing," says Sally Head, senior project manager and one of five mentors in the program. One apprentice asked her recently why change requests are important. "It's something he felt he should know but was afraid to ask, but he could come to me," she says.

Apprentices also meet with their peer groups twice a month. "We can let our hair down and talk with people who are going through the same experiences," Wilkinson says.

Different Approach

As successful as McDonald's has been with its program for current employees, the Keyport, Wash., division of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center is just as happy with its apprenticeship program that targets new hires. Since May 2002, Keyport has recruited 10 employees to enter its three-year apprenticeship program, says Christina Rude, training facilitator in the information resources department at Keyport.

It takes three years to complete Keyport's program because apprentices go through an IT generalist program first and then into a specialty of either networking or programming. In that time frame, apprentices complete 120 credits of education or training, either at the local community college or through in-house activities; four certifications; and 4,000 hours of structured on-the-job learning. In 2004, Keyport plans to expand its specializations to include security, multimedia and database.

Like McDonald's with its qual cards, Keyport has "building blocks" that apprentices must master, ranging from interpersonal skills and public speaking to technical skills such as security and Web design. The apprentices start out making $12 per hour, progressing to $20 per hour. Upon completing the program, they may be eligible for full-time positions.

Rude says the Keyport organization now believes that on-the-job learning is the fastest way to develop fully productive employees and the best way to transfer knowledge from more experienced workers to the less experienced.

CompTIA officials hope that other companies will start to feel the same way. The association predicts that 384,000 IT workers will become registered apprentices and that 6,700 employers will register as on-the-job learning providers in the next five years.

But whether the program becomes that widespread will depend on the economy. "I think we're a little too early in this slow, gradual pickup in the market to know if a lot of companies are going to do this," Markham says. "But it's a lot more valuable to have real-world working training than [to get training] through a class."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Grand Rapids, Mich. She can be contacted at mary.brandel@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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