The right training is about more than just booking each individual onto a course and paying the fee. There is a vast range of training available, from general, all-round introductions to fully-fledged highly technical, specific and more expensive courses. The value of each depends on the students' experience and expectations. Different courses have different objectives, and because they perform a distinct function in the training cosmos, comparing them is impossible. Yet they all have something in common, all seek to deliver skills to individuals and give them a passport that prospective employers will view with respect. Deciding whether to take the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ), or the vendor-specific route as dictated by Microsoft, Novell, Cisco, Oracle and others, boils down to two factors. Julie Hunter of Ilion Faculty explained: "You need to look at the student and perform a skills audit, then look at what you are expecting them to do once they are trained. Balance the two with a picture of the business and its objectives, and you should have a clearer idea of whether to book them in for an NVQ or a vendor-specific training course," she said. NVQs are Government-defined and more practical. They have a reputation for being broad based and hands-on and, as such, are suitable for those new to the industry, cross trainees from other sectors and those returning to work. They are based on the work done in GNVQs, which are aimed at GCSE-level students. Vendor-specific training courses are narrower, being defined and linked to one specific technology. Passport to employment However, a world where interoperability has become a key IT concern, the blinkered nature of vendor specific courses poses a problem for employers seeking candidates with experience of various technological disciplines. "Even the specific vendors these days recognise that their own training courses are too narrow and limiting to give an engineer or technician practical training. In this world of multi-vendor solutions everyone needs to have a grasp of several vendors' kit," Hunter said. The result is that today most vendors not only recognise other vendors' training, but make allowances for their accreditations to give a short cut to their own certification. For example, Microsoft recognises Novell and gives advance standing to those with Novell certification, and vice versa. Stuart Turner, director of public services at Oracle said: "We have the Oracle Academic Initiative (OAI), which gives students a thorough grounding in the principles and practices of topics like data design and modelling, web applications and database technologies. We don't focus only on Oracle technologies, however, but also those skills identified as critical by our industry and business partners, such as Java programming, HTML and Unix." It is also widely recognised that most IT managers and engineers need to have a grasp of a wide range of technologies and specific tools. Hunter said: "The objective for most IT students is to get a broad range of skills and experience and not be too focused. The key phrase is combination training, and those who achieve it can demand a salary premium." Many who have taken vendor-specific training courses turn their noses up at NVQ courses. But NVQs form the backbone of many vendor courses, any many vendors seek NVQ approval of their courses. Sally Tate at training company Prince said: "NVQs can be problematic in achieving common standards and can be paper intensive and time consuming. They also have no real profile in the IT world, although the concept is sound." Filling the skills gap According to Nigel Howarth, vice president of global marketing at technology training provider Netg, NVQs are increasing in popularity. He attributes this, in part, to the large number of college and university students who have focused on other subjects but want to side-step into the IT industry. They see NVQs as a good grounding for training in professional IT skills. However, he said: "In the last year there has been a positive shift towards vendor certification." Howarth believes that IT managers recognise that vendor certification is not a panacea and has its weaknesses, but that it is a good platform from which to build skills and experience. "It is like passing your driving test - you learn in one type of car so it doesn't necessarily make you a good all-round driver, but it does acknowledge that you have reached a certain standard," he added. Like many training providers, Netg now offers a spread of NVQ standards and vendor certification. "We see the value in both, and both have their own stamp of quality," Howarth said. "Their objective is to teach a skill set and teach it well, and as the training provider we add value by making sure that the required standards are met." Employers need a benchmark, and certification undoubtedly helps. Howarth said: "The variables of experience, personality and attitude still come into play but at least these qualifications guarantee a level of competency which is essential in practical IT skills." However, such pragmatism is not universal. for example, Marcus Harris, MD of a training consultancy H2O Fluid Solutions, believes that NVQs have little credibility and that vendor qualifications are highly sought after by recruiters. But he agreed that vendor qualifications have weaknesses, despite the general move to recognise and respect each other's courses and qualifications. "There is a dire need for a form of certification for IT professionals, set by an independent body. NVQs go some way in the right direction, being independent and broad-based, but they don't really go into enough depth in some areas and lack the necessary credibility." He adds that the IT industry is too important to allow the vendors to set their own certification, however good it may be. "We need a Government-sponsored body to set up a higher NVQ-type course, which goes into sufficient detail to be of value in the real world," he said. However, Harris disputed the claim that vendor training is too narrow. He said: "Vendor qualifications often make the student learn things which are never going to be any use and have little value as background information. If a student wants to pass a vendor qualification, they have to pass the curriculum as set by the vendor. This may have little relevance to the job they want to do after qualifying. The student may only be taking vendor training for a small aspect of that vendor's curriculum, and most of it may be irrelevant." Getting closer to the products Debbie Martin, professional services channel manager for Lotus Development UK, disagreed: "Vendor-authorised curriculum is developed by the product experts, who work closely with the code developers to produce quality, accurate courseware. Non-vendor training is produced by curriculum developers who do not have the advantage of working closely with the product gurus and typically would can't produce curriculum within the same timescales as the vendor." Martin believes that as a consequence, vendor-produced training has more credibility. She said: "With technology becoming more complex, timescales are becoming shorter, not only in terms of product features but also in the way the technology is being deployed, administered and maintained. Vendor-specific training has the advantage of being able to focus on the specific functionality of its own aspect of the technology." She added that with most IT engineers and technical staff having to cope with global connectivity, inter-connectivity, the internet and the evolution of intranets and extranets, the ability to drill down into the technology of one vendor can be invaluable. Clare Curtis, skills manager at Microsoft, took a more pragmatic view: "Both NVQs and vendor certification have strengths and weaknesses, and can both have a vital role to play in skills development, career progression and recruitment. NVQs cover a wide range of work-place assessed competencies, based on a particular occupation. They include a wide range of skills associated with the performance of an occupation at a particular skill level and go so far as to include the assessment of elements such as customer service, communication and problem solving." However, in Curtis' view, this is NVQ's weakness: "They do not prove a person's capability to perform a particular role on a specific technology and this is where the vendors' certifications add value," she said. "The ideal for an individual and employer would be to hold both types of qualification, offering proof of broad occupational competence as well as proof of specific product skills." Bespoke qualifications One advantage of vendor qualification is that it is global, while NVQs are limited to the UK and most other nations have their own versions, which are comparable. "The vendor qualifications operate to the same standard all over the world," Curtis claimed. "For example there are over half a million MCPs (Microsoft Certified Professionals) around the world and our certification has broad recognition among IT managers, recruitment managers, IT professionals and those considering a career in IT." Some, like Emma Richards, a spokesperson for Horizon Technical Services, believe that vendor-specific training is the only way to ensure that people are properly trained to manage sites dominated by single-vendor equipment. She said: "Individuals need to have training that is specific to their job function, especially in order to manage complex networks and systems. By holding a certification to a vendor, the employer is reassured that an individual has reached an industry standard that will enable them to concentrate on an area." She believes that vendor certifications are appropriately focused to meet the needs of the employer for someone who fully understands a technology in depth. "NVQs are fine for those entering the industry who need the broad building blocks but as soon as you need someone to take responsibility for an entire system they have to know a vendor's products in real depth. That's why only vendor certification will do," she added. This view is reinforced by Ilion Faculty's Hunter, who said: "The more senior the people we train the more narrow and focused each training course needs to be." See Skills on page 55 for the latest IT courses. The building blocks of a career: Accumulating the necessary skills Mark Curtis is part of a network management team at British Telecom. He started his career studying science at A level and then marine sciences at University in the late 1980s. "I had no intention of getting into IT until I started using the system at University and was fascinated," he said. " I had to force myself to study the set books and not spend all my time learning programming and playing on the internet." Curtis scraped though with a second class degree and immediately set about trying to find a job in IT. "The problem was that my degree was not IT related, and even though I was enthusiastic the employers always gave my lack of appropriate training as the reason for not employing me," he said. In the autumn Mark investigated available vendor courses but found that they were expensive and he was concerned that he lacked some of the foundation skills that the courseware assumed. "A counsellor at one of the training firms suggested the NVQ route, and I went through a local college to spend a year studying hardware and software, as well as the basics of networking." With the NVQ under his belt, Curtis got a job with a local IT reseller and spent another year selling systems to local small and medium-sized businesses. "It was a good way to learn more about real life applications, and what users wanted." But networking was his real interest and Curtis was taken on by BT as a trainee. "They have put me through various training courses and now I have several vendor-specific qualifications under my belt." Curtis said that the NVQ qualification served its purpose to instill the basics, while his vendor-specific training was appropriate as he became more skillful. "The courses are all different and it is a matter of matching the course to the existing skills and those required," he said. SIZING UP YOUR OPTIONS NVQs are perhaps the best qualifications for new entrants to the IT sector to obtain. NVQ courses are broader, embrace several vendors and many technologies, and include a solid, practical element. They are also recognised by employers as a robust entry-level starter system. CompTIA (Computer Technology Industry Association) is an alliance of over 7,500 companies in the IT sector which offers the alternative A+ and Network+ courses. CompTIA provides computer certification for IT professionals on a variety of subjects from basic hardware and software knowledge to their latest course, I-Net+ which focuses on internet technology skills. CompTIA's courses are fast gaining respect and increasing numbers have passed through the courses, claiming that they offer the depth of vendor courses with the breadth of NVQs. Vendor courses are historically more specific, usually pinpointing a single vendor's technology. However, the vendors have recently been forced to recognise the reality that technicians and employers are looking for skills which are broad and can deal with interoperability between vendors.
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