by Sharon Florentine

IT training: The most effective options for upskilling IT staff

Dec 21, 201810 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Skills

Continuing education and skills training are vital tools for remaining competitive, engaging staff, and retaining top talent.

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Credit: Epicurean / Getty

Training and development programs offer win-win advantages for employees and employers alike. They provide means for IT pros seeking to keep their skills sharp, and help CIOs address skills gaps, while improving employee engagement and retention.

According to a recent CTA survey, technical and high-skills training is viewed as a very important tool for employee retention at 80 percent of the 293 organizations responding. Moreover, 74 percent remarked that professional development programs to hone soft skills are very important to their employees, with another 44 percent seeing tuition reimbursement programs as vital for hiring and retaining top talent in the coming years.

Training and development programs take on various forms, enabling organizations to decide the formats that best fit the needs of their IT staff, as well as their available budgets.

Certifications, internal training, external training, conferences and events were all noted in the CTA Future of Work survey as being important for IT departments. And while larger organizations often have bigger budgets for IT training and development, smaller organizations can also take advantage of low-cost (or free) courses, certifications and events to help technical staff stay current on hard and soft skills.

The value of IT training

Being able to access cost-effective, convenient and high-quality training is a major career differentiator for IT professionals, but it’s also a major factor in engagement levels and employee retention, says Vennard Wright, CIO of WSSC Water. That’s one reason Wright implemented a formal training plan for each individual in his IT department.

“In addition to performance reviews, we have an individual development plan for each person,” Wright says. “It helps them to own their career path and improve as a leader, as an employee and as a person. For each individual, they set specific goals: go to certain conferences, write articles, read books, get specific certifications — and that keeps skills up to date as well as improves engagement and retention,” he says.

Having a training program in place also enables organizations to upskill staff quickly — a key benefit in an era in which technologies and digital strategies are evolving rapidly. Training programs also help establish a culture of self-motivation and continuous learning.

“It’s also important that people are taking ownership of their careers and going after these new skills and knowledge themselves — there’s something to be said for taking that initiative,” says Mike Feerick, CEO of global MOOC provider Alison.

Conferences and events

WSSC Water’s emphasis on conferences reflects the importance of event attendance when it comes to training staff, as 69 percent of respondents to the CTA survey offer conference and event opportunities as part of their training programs, the top entry on CTA’s list.

Technology conferences can be vital to keeping staff apprised of the latest developments in key components of an organization’s technical stack. Industry-specific events can also help staff better understand the needs of users, as well as the challenges similar organizations have addressed.

Internal training

Internal training is the second most common form of training offered, according to CTA’s survey, with 58 percent of organizations offering internal training to prepare new employees and to retain experienced staff.

Internal training is often focused on specific technologies, vendors and platforms in use at a given company to ensure they’re being used effectively, says Marco Nielsen, vice president of managed mobility services for Stratix. This type of training can also help preserve institutional knowledge after a vendor implementation.

“If an organization’s going to launch a new initiative or deploy a new technology, they need to be able to keep that in running order and use it to the fullest once the vendor leaves,” Nielsen says. “But it goes even beyond that technical know-how; more and more IT people are now customer-facing, so they have to be trained not only on the tech, but on the soft skills necessary to assist end-users, too. If you can offer this kind of training to help your IT people do their jobs better, you have a real benefit: someone who knows the tech, can teach others and troubleshoot, and who has the trust of users and that institutional knowledge.”

Mentoring programs

Mentoring programs are another popular training opportunity, with 45 percent of the CTA survey’s respondents offering one. Setting up a mentoring program isn’t terribly complicated or expensive, so it should appeal to organizations of all budgets and sizes.

While for many organizations, mentoring can help identify and maximize high-potential employees and streamline the leadership pipeline, that shouldn’t be the only focus, says Bask Iyer, CIO and GM of edge computing at Dell and VMware.

“Successful mentoring programs also have to be about improving the community around you as a whole, not just about individuals’ achievements,” Iyer says. “When I was starting out, I was so focused on improving myself and making the right connections that I wasn’t spending much time looking at how to improve IT as a whole. That doesn’t make for a good mentor or a mentee. Mentees should be respectful, open to learning, able to take constructive criticism and incorporate feedback and be willing to give back once they have gained time and experience on the job.”

Within VMware, mentoring is focused on evangelizing the company’s culture and values, especially how to put the company’s “innovation for good” mission into practice, Iyer says.

“For us, we’re built around ‘innovation for good.’ And a lot of people say that, but you can tell which ones truly believe in that and which ones just want to get up the ladder and make money,” he says. “Mentoring for us is a way to teach what and who VMware is as a company, how people can navigate within it, what do our values mean for them.”

External training

Of the 44 percent who offer external training classes, according to the CTA survey, respondents commonly target job-specific classes or training that is geared toward management, leadership, negotiation and technical skills. External training is often industry-sponsored or -affiliated and may consist of online courses or guest speakers at company events.

Stratix’s Nielsen points to project management certification as a prime example of a valuable external training course that encompasses all of these elements. Many organizations employ project managers and require specific credentials — like the Project Management Professional (PMP) — to benchmark their abilities.

Online learning

The cost of sending an employee or employees to complete in-person training is one of the biggest hurdles to continuing education in the workplace. Here, online learning — MOOCs, aka massive open online courses, in particular — can lower the barrier to entry.

“MOOCs and online learning are addressing three of the biggest obstacles to learning in the enterprise: the cost, inevitable technology obsolescence and accessibility,” says Ryan Corey, co-founder of online enterprise learning platform Cybrary.

According to Corey, frequently updated MOOCs can be better equipped to provide training on bleeding-edge technology topics when compared to traditional training approaches.

“For the money, it’s so impractical for enterprises to pay for a class now knowing with absolute certainty that twelve months from now the technology will be completely different,” Corey says.

Plus, understaffed or busy IT departments often can’t spare the time to send one or more mission-critical engineers to training, and employees often can’t fit a strictly scheduled course into their after-work time. Because MOOCs are online and on-demand, coursework and study time can be squeezed in almost anywhere and students finish at their own pace.

The quality of MOOC material is often as good as or even better than curriculum available through traditional training providers, community colleges or universities. “MOOC providers are employing subject matter experts with incredible experience and skills. Because they’re virtual, they can be pickier about which instructors they choose and what content is presented,” says Corey.

Technical certifications

Technical certifications are another key IT training component, with 34 percent of organizations offering certification programs, according to the CTA. Certification programs are commonly job-specific or are intended for specific technology platforms on which an organization depends. The costs of these programs, which are offered outside the company, are often reimbursable by the employer.

“Doesn’t it make sense to place responsibility for critical IT investments in the hands of someone who is certified by their industry?” says Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of “Any organization that thinks it can’t afford to train and certified their IT staff should be asking, ‘Can I afford not to?'”

It’s one thing to hold a degree or point to acquired knowledge of IT concepts, theories and knowledge; it’s quite another to be able to prove, in practice, your command of technology and leverage it to make business more efficient, and that’s exactly why IT certifications are so valuable to businesses, says Thibodeaux.

Industry certifications — whether from a technology vendor such as Cisco, Microsoft, Juniper, or Red Hat or through an independent organization — demonstrate that IT pros can apply that classroom knowledge in a real-world, on-the-job scenario, he says.

But beware certifications that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, says Subhash Tantry, president of certification, testing and assessment platform provider Mettl. While many vendor certifications are valuable — think Cisco’s CCIE or CCSA, he says — many vendors simply create a certification for the sake of having one even if it doesn’t hold real-world credibility.

“Employers can always tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘pointless’ certifications,” says Tantry. “The ‘good’ ones are almost always performance-oriented and have a laboratory component involved that proves candidates can use their knowledge in the real world.”

Regardless of which options you choose, offering training and education to your IT workforce isn’t just a nice-to-have — it’s a necessity.