"It takes us an average of three years to fully train in a graduate from a university to our systems and our methods," said the CIO of a major New York brokerage house. "I wish it could be faster, but there is really no way that a university can train someone for everything that he is bound to come across in our environment."

It's a common problem.

Mainframe computers continue to run 60% to 70% of the world's most mission-critical systems, yet the average mainframe IT employee is in his or her late fifties, about to retire.

Equally challenging are new areas of technology like big data and analytics, where it is possible to hire talented data scientists from university computer science departments--but they must still learn how to work with a diverse set of data repositories and corporate data sources that are different from their computer labs.

At the end of the day, on-the-job training is needed--and it isn't the kind of training that can translate to results if you simply send folks to seminars.

SEE: Job description: Data scientist

Partnerships with schools

One proactive approach that more corporate IT departments are taking is actively partnering with local universities and colleges in the development of curricula and courses that are relevant to their businesses and their IT needs. The companies provide guest lecturers and internships for students who actually work onsite in corporate IT for a period of weeks or months. The companies ultimately have an opportunity to hire these students, who already have some familiarity with their systems, which can reduce on-the-job training time.

Chantal DuBois, Director, Sales and Distribution Development and Implementation Damages Insurance Information Technology for Desjardins Technology in Levis, Quebec, collaborates with Cegep de Thetford, a local college that specializes in technical education. "I've hired three Cegep de Thetford interns and have also hired other consultants from the college to extend my resource pool," DuBois said. "When the interns come in, they first start as programmers. Two of them have since become analysts. We find that we still have to orient them to our IT environment and infrastructure when they first arrive because they have to understand the particulars of our operation and how our systems are built, but they are very good hires."

SEE: Interview questions: Multimedia designer

Internal training

In other cases, IT creates internal training departments that are tasked with aligning raw talent, mentors, training, and projects. Here's how it works:

The IT training department collaborates with IT project and functional area managers (e.g., database, applications, networks) to determine which projects are coming up and what staffing needs (and in particular, what skill sets) will be required. For instance, a project might require a highly skilled database administrator's personal attention. Or it could be a project that requires database skills, but at a much lower level, so a junior database person could be assigned to the project. This junior person would be mentored as needed by a more senior database specialist. The end goals are skills transfer and confidence building so that the next time around, this junior employee will be able to take on a similar project responsibility without help.

Viability

Do these methods of injecting corporate IT projects into university programs and assigning inexperienced persons (and their internal mentors) to real projects work?

Neither is a natural fit for IT, which primarily is an engineering discipline and not a training function. But the strategy can and does work if the CIO pencils in training as a strategic "talent investment" objective with the purpose of developing new and long-term talent in the company--and if the CEO and the board buy into it. From there, it is a case of putting in an administrative structure that can manage both the university-facing and internal project staffing processes of employee technical skills development.

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