Problem Solved: IBM i Skills Initiatives Need Partners
March 10, 2014 Dan Burger
Technology readiness levels assess and evaluate when implementation success exceeds implementation risk. One component of that assessment is the skill level of those doing the implementing and on-going maintenance of the technology. The IBM midrange computer is a good example. The system has been advanced and enhanced in many areas. We have application modernization, database modernization, storage modernization, and the technology roadmap goes on. What about skills modernization?
It is an issue that does not go away. Investing in the system means investing in the skills.
IBM has two programs designed to handle the ongoing need for new skills and broader skills. There’s the Academic Initiative that’s targeted at two- and four-year colleges and preparing students for careers in IT, and there’s the Global Skills Initiative that is focused on existing IT professionals and could be called a continuing education program. Although it seems these two programs should be integrated and collaboration should part of the business process, each program operates separately even though they both are conducted from the Systems and Technology Group and their goals are very similar.
The Global Skills Initiative is fairly new. It was put in place in mid-2013 as IBM migrated its training and education delivery efforts from corporate control to the sales channel, where wisely it was recognized as being closer to the customers. IBM business partners, who have the majority of customer contact, are in a better position to assist with skills building at the customer level. To this purpose, IBM’s emphasis has leaned toward developing the training and education that applies to IBM systems and software and also toward the education of folks in the reseller network who turn those skills into services that they sell. Product-oriented certifications abound. The training creates a revenue stream, which seems to be a good bet to increase as the acquisition of skills becomes a greater asset in the wave of modernization that is taking place.
There are four business partners, referred to as the global skills providers (GSPs), from whom these training programs flow. They are the giant IBM resellers, Arrow Electronics and Avnet, where abundant IBM-related skills exist, plus two highly proficient companies that specialize in IT technical training, Global Knowledge and LearnQuest.
Over on the Academic Initiative side, the effort provides colleges with course planning and curriculum plus access to IBM systems and software at no charge to the colleges. The AI has been an up and down program–neglected for many years, but showing signs of improvement in past couple of years, even though it remains grievously underfunded and understaffed compared to the programs from IBM rivals.
In the past year, the IBM Academic Initiative budget has increased fivefold, according to Pete Glass, program manager for the Power Systems Academic Initiative. Two years ago, Glass said there were 135 schools participating in the Power Systems Academic Initiative worldwide. That number is now 203.
Building relationships between colleges and IBM customers–who have made it known that finding young talent is a needle in a haystack adventure–is a priority for Glass, who only recently was able to hire a person specifically to lead that critical effort. That is emblematic of the progress, but astounding that it took this long to hire a single person in this essential position.
For IBM, a company that boasts of its ability to create business solutions, to overlook the business logic of establishing long-term, working relationships between IBM customers and colleges is a blunder. When IBM plans product roadmaps and talks about investments, this should be included. The awareness level of the Academic Initiative, particularly among IBM i customers, can barely be identified. It is better than it has been in years, but that is like saying the program is able to walk, when the goal should be to make it run.
Jobs for graduates are the key to enrollment increases. When college administrators become aware of companies looking for a particular set of skills and offering internships and jobs to those who demonstrate aptitude, their attitudes about what fits into a curriculum change. RPG and IBM i system administration courses look like good choices instead of empty classrooms.
So the current focus on connecting companies with skill modernization needs with educational sources that can supply those skills is the correct direction.
Last year, when Jim Buck–who leads the IBM i curriculum at Gateway Technical College, the number one school in the nation for graduating IBM i-focused students–led the efforts to apply for a Department of Labor grant, there were 80 IBM i shops that supported the effort to build a better pipeline of talent. IBM supported the grant proposal as well. But the timeline and resources for preparing the grant fell short of what was necessary for such a large project. The grant application was denied. That was six months ago. There’s no indication that a second attempt will be made.
The 80 IBM i shops that supported it and want to be connected to colleges are still wondering where the future talent will come from. The AI has targeted those 80 companies for deeper involvement. And its new employee, hired at the end of January, has the job of match up companies with community colleges to develop curriculum that delivers the skills that will lead to jobs in IBM i shops. It’s a huge job. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
That’s where the Global Skills Initiative comes into play. It is a much larger and much better funded program. But the goals and objectives are the same: skills modernization. IBM needs to figure out how to combine the efforts of the Global Skills Initiative and the Academic Initiative so that skills keep pace with technology. Is there any incentive for this? I don’t think there is, but there ought to be.
Companies are either going to enrich their workforce with upgraded skills or pay for skills owned by an outside supplier, maybe a business partner or maybe an independent source of training and education. Options are available, and many companies make use of options that include technical conferences at the local user group level. Attendance at the technical conferences, such as the twice a year RPG & DB2 Summit and the half a dozen or so events hosted by local user groups have been constant but not growing with participation, typically in the range of 100 to 150 paid registrations. The annual COMMON conference counts approximately 1,000 registered attendees on a good year. Last year, the annual DevCon conference called it quits.
Jon Paris and Susan Gantner, household names in IBM i training and education, have been vocal about the need for skills modernization and the importance of mentoring and internship programs in the skills development process.
“So many companies seem content to simply deal with resource shortages by outsourcing, which is not only a short-term solution, but also one that in our opinion is also shortsighted,” Paris wrote in a blog one year ago. Because young professionals lack the business experience that is a priority for many companies looking to expand the skills of their workforces, both Paris and Gantner support the idea of retraining experienced business people and teaching them how to program.
This type of thinking is also a reason the Skills Initiative and the Academic Initiative should find reasons to collaborate.