Lands of Opportunity

Top companies say investments in career development yield big dividends to employers and employees alike.

With IT expertise scarce and employee turnover at an all-time high, Computerworld's Best Places to Work have devised generous and creative career development programs that help them retain skilled professionals while enabling them to meet their ever-changing information technology challenges.

Many Best Places companies say they view professional development in the same light as research and development functions, with the belief that investing in individuals' career development will yield significant returns.

To this end, some have developed internal "IT universities" with curricula that span the gamut from Java development to Linux administration to project management.

Others have teamed with outside training companies for classroom-based certification training.

Still others have embarked on Internet-based learning, which can be honed to a particular individual's professional development needs and schedule.

The value that Best Places companies place on training is illustrated at Sonoco Products Co., a global manufacturer of packaging materials in Hartsville, S.C. "Training is one of the monthly metrics that we track and report to the chief financial officer - just the way we track and report network availability," says Steve Wyatt, director of corporate services at the firm's information services group.

Wyatt, an 11-year Sonoco veteran, says the IT department annually plans the skills and training that will be needed. Each month it measures the number of people and hours against its yearly plan to make sure the IT staff is staying up-to-date.

"Productivity will suffer if we have to play catch-up. If we don't invest today, we won't have the resources we need in the future," he says.

Nearly all Best Places companies empower employees to take charge of the short- and long-term directions of their careers by matching employee aspirations with the IT needs of the organization.

For example, Harley-Davidson Inc. recently launched the Employee Management Development Program, says Mark Dickson, senior systems manager at the company's Produce Products Group. The program is aimed at moving certain IT candidates into management positions during a 12- to 18-month period and creating "management heirs" within the Milwaukee-based company.

Terri Coughlin, a senior IT project manager who has grown interested in the business aspects of IT, earned admission into the Business Unit Operations branch of the program after successfully wrapping up several large, visible information systems projects within the company.

After eight years at the company, Coughlin has joined a 50-person Harley-Davidson subsidiary to learn the ins and outs of its business processes. "This will prepare me to move to the user side working with IT and reach the next tier of management," she says.

No Skimping Here

Best Places companies are generous with funding for industry certifications and classes. Last year, they spent an average of about $3,600 per IT employee on training, and IT employees averaged close to 12 days of professional development on the companies' time.

The IT leaders interviewed for this article also noted that they have the flexibility to stretch career development dollars, if the need arises, to go beyond the training budget.

For example, Joel Howle, lead systems engineer at Sonoco, has been able to add five vendor certifications to his resume in the past four years. When Sonoco began migrating from an IBM SNA network to an IP network, Howle took the opportunity to begin learning everything he could about LANs and client/server computing.

"The mainframe guys didn't want to do Unix administration," Howle says. "I started learning because I needed to. . . . Then it occurred to me that all I'd have to do is take a test, and I'd have a certification. The industry tends to put a lot of stock in the letters behind your name."

Howle holds two Microsoft Corp. certifications, two Cisco certifications and a Linux administration certificate. He is now preparing to take his lab exams for the mother of all Cisco Systems Inc.'s certifications, the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, for which he has already passed the qualifying exam.

When Catherine Lukhard, a telephony production support specialist, joined Falls Church, Va.-based Capital One Financial Corp. five years ago as a customer service representative, she leveraged the company's Development Action Plan to set her career path toward IT.

Each quarter, Lukhard and her manager decide what she must do to take the next step - a series of activities that has included work on finishing her bachelor's degree in information systems, project management education and classes to hone her presentation skills.

Lukhard moved from customer service to database administration and now supports the company's call-routing systems and voice-response units. Her short-term goal is to join Capital One's telephony architecture team.

To help her achieve this goal, Lukhard represents her group on a companywide problem-management committee that identifies problems that occur in the corporation and determines how to prevent them from recurring.

"As the representative from my area, I'm learning about broader IT issues," she says.

The companies that educate IT staff about how the business works - so the employees understand the context of their work - say they have better-skilled staff and more-rewarded workers.

For example, Ash Brooks, vice president of end-user computing at Arrow Electronics Inc. in Melville, N.Y., says a weeklong orientation program for new employees pays big dividends. The program includes a trip to a local distribution warehouse to witness operations.

"From an IT perspective, it helps us support customer needs much better," Brooks says. "It's important for us to understand what the company is trying to achieve and translate that to the desktop level."

Turning to the Internet

The MONY Group Inc. has just begun an Internet-based training series in several areas it has identified as core competencies, such as project management, explains Marianne Churgin, assistant vice president of IT. The New York-based financial services company uses the Web-based training library of (formerly DPEC Inc.) in Columbus, Ohio, to deliver technical, professional and practical skills courses to IT workers' desktops.

"You can take a course at your desktop, at home or at work - all you need is a password," she says. "If you are an insomniac, you can complete your courses in the middle of the night."

To help move employees into new technologies, the company has also partnered with an outside training firm that offers certificate programs in network engineering, Unix and intranet/extranet technologies.

"Such programs, for example, can help mainframe Cobol programmers retool themselves. Employees pick a core curriculum and do them on their own time, but they are 100% reimbursable," explains Churgin. "It usually takes one to two years to complete a certification."

Churgin notes that 39 MONY Group staffers graduated in a certificate program last year.

Retention Benefits

What keeps highly skilled IT staff at Best Places companies loyal? After 12 years at his company, Howle says, "Sonoco has been real good about being aware of our current market value and keeping us current with our skills. You don't get stale here."

At Staples Inc. in Framingham, Mass., Staples University is helping retrain experts in AS/400 and Oracle applications in Java and HTML, so they can move internally to the dot-com area, says David Barclay, vice president of information systems for merchandising and supply chain.

Of course, there is more to employee retention than generous training programs. Ultimately, says Churgin, employees who feel valued are the ones who stay.

"You can provide great training, but if people don't feel that they are working on anything important, training alone won't do it," she says.

Wexler is a freelance writer in Campbell, Calif.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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