As the World Trains (Revisited)

Instead of embracing training as an investment in a savvy and innovative IT workforce, companies tend to view it as an encumbrance

Last month we reported that IT pros in general—and mainframers in particular—tend to get worked up over the issue of training, which seems like an afterthought in many organizations today. (See the discussion at

In fact, some IT veterans say, it isn’t so much that training is an afterthought—it is (instead) that an increasing number of employers view training as an unavoidable encumbrance. Instead of embracing training (including continuing education, refresher courses, or cross-disciplinary training) as an investment in a potentially game-changing competitive differentiator—i.e., a savvy, seasoned, and innovative IT workforce—many IT organizations view training as something to which they must unavoidably pay lip service.

That’s a prescription for decline, some IT alarmists caution.

The problem is especially acute in Big Iron shops, IT veterans say, because mainframe technologists are all too frequently viewed as dead weight, more or less. They’re the folks who keep crucial “legacy” systems up and running, to be sure, but they don’t figure prominently in an organization’s next-generation application planning.

Mainframe professionals in services organizations—most of which have extensive in-house training facilities—don’t have it any better. These workers say they have little, if any, opportunity for additional training, largely because they’re most valuable to their employers right where they are.

Take Jeff Blackmon, a mainframe veteran who has since gone on—of his own initiative—to greener pastures.

“I am one of those individuals … [who] has spent a major portion of [his] in a mainframe environment. My specialties were storage management, performance management, and [disaster recovery]. I could see the writing on the wall a few years back while working at Global Services doing backup recovery on distributed systems and storage management on mainframes. Training was a subject to discuss at performance review time, and that was it,” writes Blackmon, who has since earned his certification as a business continuity planner (CBCP) and an information systems security professional (CISSP). “I have since then moved on into the field of business continuity and disaster recovery. It should be more stable than mainframe support,” he adds.

Blackmon, like many other IT pros, sees in this situation a recipe for IT mayhem. “With no training taking place for the technical staff, management seems to wonder why IT has descended into ignorance, foolishness, and inefficiency. It seems that the common response to this problem is to implement layoffs and reduce cost,” he comments. “Hopefully this can be changed before the U.S. becomes a has-been in the world IS market.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a production support engineer with a U.S. telecommunications giant agrees. In fact, he says, his organization increasingly views outsourcing—particularly to offshore locales—as a better investment than getting its in-house IT pros up to speed (or first acquainted with) the latest and greatest technology trends and application development paradigms.

“The thinking seems to be, 'Let them [the outsourcing services provider] shoulder the cost of training [their own internal IT staffs],'” he indicates. From a bean-counting perspective, he concedes, this is probably a very attractive proposition. “I would imagine that the putative cost savings are hard for [management] to resist. It does not seem to occur to them that these [savings] could be offset by other, more serious, costs.”

This is particularly true in the case of offshore outsourcing, he says. It’s only by sending IT work offshore, he claims, that his company’s service-provider partners are able to offer competitive value in the first place. “There is the expectation that a certain percentage of [IT workloads] must go offshore if [outsourcing providers] are going to make [a profit] off of this,” he concludes, noting that as a former employee of a large global outsourcer he’s familiar with the view from the other side of the fence.

Making Training Cost-Justified and Affordable

Terry Sambrook, a director with UK mainframe and IBM eServer training specialist KMS-IT Ltd., says there are strategies organizations can employ to make training more affordable, and—indeed—cost-justifiable.

“Any organization may be able to reduce costs if they can affect a block booking to attract a discount, which has implications for daily cover in the office. On-site training is cheaper than visiting the provider’s venue,” he points out.

“A classic way of reducing training costs it to challenge the delivery timescale. My observation is that in the UK we often run equivalent courses to those in the U.S. in a shorter time-frame. For example JCL Workshops and REXX Programming in the UK are run as three-day courses, whereas in the U.S. my colleagues tell me it's four.”

Sambrook, who has managed courses in the U.S. for a North American training provider, has other training prescriptions. “Self-study material may be a way forward. Historically, I did not favor the old audio-video methods, as I personally like to converse with a tutor. The advent of the Web provides scope for distance learning. I mentioned that I had run courses in the U.S., and two of these were JCL courses with the student in Salt Lake City and me in the UK. The material was a combination of HTML pages, with PDF document back-up, and real-time queries via a chat room in addition to e-mail. The only thing lacking was a Web cam link.”

Sambrook doesn’t think Web-based or online training is a panacea, however: “Not all course material lends itself to distance learning, but there is a place for both, and if use correctly it offers a very cost-effective solution.”

As for the ostensibly short-sighted view that many North American companies have of training, Sambrook says it’s a mistake. “Ultimately training provision is an investment both for the employer and employee, although the longer term benefit for the employer will depend upon whether they can retain the skilled person they have created,” he concludes. “In my experience requesting training which can be demonstrated to support the business goals, be they service goals or strategic goals, is more likely to succeed although nothing is guaranteed.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.