Cisco social network targets skills shortage

ORLANDO – Cisco Systems Inc. has launched two new initiatives – including a social networking site – aimed at providing a much needed boost to the IT talent and skills shortage. But according to recent computer science and technology enrollment figures in Canada, the root of the problem still lies in the lack of IT interest among young people.

The Cisco Learning Network site was unveiled at the company’s annual Cisco Live! conference in Orlando. The Web 2.0-based community aims to allow new and existing IT professionals the ability to collaborate and learn from each other through discussion forums, document sharing, wikis and blog posts. Discussions could range anywhere from beginner tips on the benefits of Cisco’s CCNA certification to advanced tutorials for users looking to tackle advanced firewall security configurations.

“This social learning site is the first of its type and will allow the world to be able to leverage and understand all the products and services we provide,” Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, general manager of Learning@Cisco, told a group of international journalists at the conference.

“The best education comes not just from the content, but also the experiences you get on the job. Sharing and discussing examples and best practices can better help technical professionals learn from each other.”

The eventual goal of the community, according to Cisco, is to become a self-supporting network for customers, partners and students to shares ideas about networking and IT. The site looks to be an extension of the company’s Cisco Networking Academy, a global e-learning program that gives students the opportunity to pursue IT-related courses through online training and hands-on workshops.

In addition to the new social networking site, the company also unveiled security, voice, and wireless specialist certifications as part of its CCNA program. Cisco said the certifications address the new landscape of today’s networks – where IT professionals have to run an infrastructure that deals with technologies like VoIP, IP video and Web 2.0 tools. Forrester Research Inc. analyst Rob Whiteley, who had recently conducted a survey on the networking skills requirements, said that most large enterprises can expect to have dedicated wireless, voice and security specialists within the next five years.

“In IT, what used to be the domain of the expert level is actually becoming the requirement of the entry-level,” Whitely, principal analyst and research director at Forrester Consulting, said. “Today’s IT managers are faced with a daunting task to invest in a lot of new skills and the network is something that keeps coming up.” And with more than 80 per cent of Cisco’s business going through the channel community, the company said the new initiatives will also be attractive to partners.

“Security, wireless and voice areas are doubling over the next five years,” Alex Thurber, senior director of technology go-to-market strategy for worldwide channels at Cisco, said. “So if the customers need that, the partners do too because they are supplying the technology.” Thurber said that he’s working closely with the Cisco Networking Academy and wants to see its students leave with certifications and promising careers. With this demand for specialized skills has also come a highly publicized IT skills shortage. At a panel discussion at its Toronto headquarters last October,

Cisco Canada said the Canadian IT sector requires approximately 35,000 new hires annually to keep up with the employment demand. However, only about 7,000 students graduate each year in computer sciences, computer engineering and other IT-related disciplines.

Most industry watchers point to a lack of interest in IT among incoming college and university students as a reason for the skills crisis. “The media took the Y2K hangover, the dot com burst and the lack of enrolment and really amplified it,” said Mauro Lollo, co-founder and CTO at Oakville, Ont.-based technology solutions provider UNIS LUMIN, said at the Cisco Canada event. “So, young minds working their way through school has seen this and steered away from IT.”

But according to Tara Collison senior manager for strategic operations at Cisco’s networking academy, this trend has started to change as more and more students are starting to choose networking and IT as their career path. She said programs like Cisco’s networking academy and the newly launched learning network will continue to aid in that reversal.

“We want to show young people that these jobs can be relevant in any industry,” Collison said. “If you want to work in fashion or advertising, you can through networking and IT.” Collison said that over 400,000 students worldwide have achieved CCNA level education through the Cisco Networking Academy and interest in the program has continued to rise.

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