Training for Entry-Level Staff

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Jacquay found the assignments incredibly challenging. "There were plenty of days when I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing or what steps I needed to do to get [the project] accomplished," she says. Conversations with her mentor and senior Nextel employees aided her learning. "The most important part has been to ask questions," she says. "In order to learn, you have to be willing to put in the effort, picking people’s brains."

After the program ends, trainees get permanent positions. Jacquay is now an IT business analyst, working on the revenue-generating side of Nextel’s project management office (PMO). "I’m working on requirements for applications that enable sales forces to get their jobs done," she says. "In the PMO, you get an overall picture of application software, and you’re not just siloed into one specific aspect."

Despite the current onus to reduce labor costs, LeFave feels a strong need for more CIOs to rekindle the apprentice and journeyman IT roles that helped him get his career started. "You have to have someone who can share the experiences of success and failure with the next group," he says. LeFave says the cost to set up and run the training program varies, hovering around $50,000. But he is sold on the greater good. "This is the one program that I’ll never forget provided more of an inspiration and motivation to the organization," he says. "The motivation and the morale is 10 times more important than the economics."

O’Reilly Auto parts: Talent Pipeline in a Tight Market

At O’Reilly Auto Parts, Jasinski doesn’t wait for entry-level IT programmers to graduate from college. Over the past 10 years, the vice president of IS at the $1.7 billion auto parts retailer has forged a strong relationship with local colleges in the Springfield, Mo., area. He goes after college juniors and brings them in as paid interns.

There is both the "greater good" aspect to Jasinski’s efforts as well as an effort to secure talent in an area where talent is hard to come by. "The programming resources are fought for by primarily the same companies in the area," he says. Southwest Missouri State is the largest local university, and that’s where Jasinski gets most of his interns from.

Lots of companies hire interns, but Jasinski’s program is exceptional as an entry-level training ground for what he hopes are his future IT programmers. He offers interns real-world experience and gives them a means to apply what they’re learning in college. "We’re not looking to teach them; colleges do that," he says. "But we want to retool them with our processes and the programming language we use." During a 90-day probationary period, mentors school the interns in the IT department’s software and in O’Reilly’s editor and change management processes. "They live, eat and breathe as an O’Reilly programmer," Jasinski says.

Senior staffers act as mentors to the interns as well as eyes and ears for Jasinski. The interns progress through checkpoints, working at standardized programs and test projects that Jasinski has benchmarked with previous candidates. "We know what they should be capable of doing," he says. "Can they take and create a program to perform the tasks they were asked to do?"

Informally, much of the benefit for the interns lies in being able to soak up knowledge about O’Reilly’s software, projects and culture, through one-on-one interactive work with senior analysts and other team members and what Jasinski terms "osmosis time." He says programmers are happy to act as mentors, because the interns can take some of the lower-level work off the programmers’ hands, which allows them to work on higher-return projects.

Interns with the right aptitude and ambition—and who can wear the many hats that his small shop needs—are able to move more quickly through the program. "As interns prove themselves, they are challenged with more difficult projects and roles," Jasinski says. And when a permanent position becomes available, Jasinski knows whether he has the right person for the job.

Jasinski has had as many as 15 interns at one time and sometimes none; it all depends on the changing business cycles and who’s available. Right now, he has four interns among 52 IT staffers. Not all make it through the program. "For every four into the program, we’ll lose one," Jasinski says. "But more often, we’re right [about a candidate]." At times, nearly 40 percent of his full-time IT staffers are folks who began as interns.

One challenge of the O’Reilly program is when a two-year intern gets the "bright lights, big city" bug upon graduation. "The risk is training someone and creating a marketable college graduate who takes a job somewhere else," Jasinski says. During the interview process, he’s forthright in asking potential interns about their post-graduation desires. He looks at where they’re from and where they’re more than likely to go after college. Interestingly, Jasinski says his first entry-level job and subsequent move to another company is precisely the problem that he’s trying to combat with his training plan.

Unlike UTC’s Doucette and Nextel’s LeFave, though, Jasinski does not send any IT work offshore—and has little or no plans to do so. "There’s value in having business knowledge within our four walls," he says. "And there’s enough going on in technology that there’s still a significant amount of people interested in these positions."

Although their approaches to the entry level differ, these three CIOs say they’ll continue looking to new employees for the same set of reasons: to infuse their departments with talent, energy and fresh thinking. Their collective hope is that more CIOs will follow suit, for the good of their businesses and for the greater good.

Staff Writer Thomas Wailgum (twailgum@cio.com) wrote about UPS’s succession planning program in the May 1 issue.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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