US gov’t report: IT training isn’t enough

A four-year degree or a certification is not likely to be enough to land an IT job in the current economy, because employers also want experience, according to a U.S. government report on the state of information technology education and training.

The “Education and Training for the Information Technology Workforce” report, released by the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), finds hundreds of IT education and training opportunities. While IT employers generally want their IT employees to have four-year college degrees, they also want some type of work experience.

“What we’ve found everywhere, from the employers’ side, is what a high priority they place on experience,” said Phillip J. Bond, undersecretary for technology at the DOC. “This is really useful for educators, training providers, and others to understand … that adds up to (offering) internships.”

The 225-page report, put together after a series of eight roundtables across the country and close to 300 responses to a Web-based survey, noted that some employers may be willing to hire trainees or entry-level workers with no IT work background, but that most “see great value in experience.”

“Despite the availability of good training, employers place a higher priority on actual experience in the application of technical skills,” the report says. “Therefore, no matter how well-trained, a worker without practical, hands-on work experience may not be considered for most jobs involving the newly acquired technical skills.”

The report points to the need for internship programs, although some employers said interns take too much time away from workers. The result, said Bond, is that people looking for technology jobs, especially mid-career workers, may have to look for volunteer work or other unconventional methods to gain experience.

“What they probably have to do is be creative to look for opportunities to get something on their resume,” Bond said. He recommended workers volunteer for projects at work or for outside volunteer activities. “What you get out of it is a chance to show real experience,” he added.

The DOC report also shows the need for other programs besides internships, said Neill Hopkins, vice-president for workforce development and training for the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), which offers a variety of IT training programs. As well as technology skills, tech employers now want “soft” skills, such as people skills, and more than ever, employers are looking for the exact right fit of skills when they fill an IT position, Hopkins said.

“Going out and just getting a degree or going out and just getting a certification is no longer a guarantee to employment,” Hopkins said. “There are plenty of open positions, but you’d better have the right skill set.”

In May 2002, CompTIA launched an IT apprenticeship program funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. The apprenticeship program, which combines classroom instruction, on-the-job training and demonstration of process through certifications, launched a partnership with McDonald’s Corp. in June, allowing 10 IT graduates to work on projects with supervision from three McDonald’s IT managers.

Marcus Courtney, president of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers in Washington state, recommends the DOC report to job seekers looking for information on what skills and experience IT employers are looking for in the current job market.

Courtney, who participated in the DOC’s November 2001 Seattle roundtable on IT education and training, said recent graduates need to be realistic about the kinds of IT jobs available right now. Employers are more choosey than they were in the height of the dot-com boom four years ago, he added.

“There are no guarantees right now,” Courtney said. “Recent graduates with no experience … are finding a very, very challenging labor market.”

The DOC report notes that the number of IT jobs in the U.S. rose from 1.2 million in 1991 to a peak of 2.5 million in 2001. But while the current IT job market may be tough for job-seekers, the U.S. Department of Labor expects that the U.S. will add more than 2.1 million IT jobs between 2000 and 2010, according to the report.

Bond said he hopes the report will serve as a roadmap for people wanting to work in IT.

The report also notes a wide variety of IT education and training opportunities available for people, ranging from certifications and boot-camp programs to master’s degrees. Prices for IT education and training can vary greatly, Bond said.

“Because of the land-rush mentality that existed for a while, there is a somewhat confusing array (of educational opportunities),” Bond said. “The good news is there’s a bounty of opportunity.”

The report suggests that most employers are looking for IT workers with four-year college degrees and foundational knowledge of IT, not just the “skill of the day.” Some employers may be willing to hire workers with less education, however, especially those looking to fill tech support/call center jobs, Web developer jobs, some database-related jobs, and some network administration jobs, the report says. Many employers offering those jobs want experience, however.

“The challenge for workers, especially if they’re already in the workforce, is to do a good job in their 50-whatever hours a week they work, and still somewhere find time and possibly the dime to pay for staying current,” Bond said.

When the IT job market turns around again, employers may want to explore in-house IT training programs, allowing employees to keep up with new skills, Bond added. Employers should find ideas in the report for offering training, he added, and some IT companies have launched short, focused desktop training programs.

“(Employers) all agree that even though the market is so tight right now that they can be very specific about the skill set they are demanding, that’s not going to last forever,” Bond said.

The DOC report, released in late June, is available at