Qualifications find the perfect match

Formal links between NVQs and vendor qualifications could ease skills
shortages in the computing sector, as a scheme launched this month aims to
prove. By Elaine Essery

Results of a study carried out by e-skills NTO are set to boost
qualification levels and increase skills in the IT services sector.

Published at the beginning of this month, the findings are the outcome of a
one-year project funded by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to
map the content of IT vendor qualifications against the standards required for
NVQs.

Vendor qualifications built around large companies’ products and services
are commonplace and well-respected in the sector, and some cross-recognition
exists.

But they dominate the industry at the expense of competence-based,
nationally-recognised NVQs.

In the past two to three years, there has been much discussion about the
links between the two types of qualification which prompted e-skills NTO to set
up the project to examine the issue formally. The NTO teamed up with major
players Cisco, Microsoft and Novell to focus on their certification and the
Level 3 NVQs which tie in most closely with them – Developing IT Systems and
Customer Systems Support.

E-skills NTO project manager Andrew Gibbons says, "We’re showing
exactly how the qualifications link and where the common areas are. What that
means for users of qualifications is that if they have, say, Novell
certification and they’re working towards an NVQ they can see how the knowledge
they already have counts towards it. The outcome we’re hoping for is an
increased take-up of NVQs which will help address skills shortages in the
sector."

Moves to help tackle the serious issue of skills shortages are vital. Labour
market intelligence for the South East – which has the highest concentration of
IT services companies – reveals that 38 per cent of these reported a skills gap
in their workforce that was adversely affecting their business.

Reluctance

But although firms perceive a shortfall in skill levels, they show a
reluctance to address it. Small companies – and 80 per cent of firms in the
sector employ fewer than 20 staff – are less likely to train, and under 5 per
cent of all IT services firms have Modern Apprentices. Heavy reliance on
recruitment from within the industry only exacerbates the problem.

It creates a spiral of competition for a scarce resource which is limiting
the growth of the sector. Instead, companies must be willing to take on more
people from outside the industry and (re)train them in IT skills. Helping people
to convert into the industry by giving them a way forward is one of the
benefits the NTO project will bring to employers.

Another benefit is offering an attractive package to young entrants. Spring
Skills is a major provider of vocational training in the UK and has been
involved in IT for two years. Its sister division recruits personnel for IT
companies throughout the country.

"The IT servicing arm is very new to vocational education, although
it’s fair to say its validity and importance has become much more widely
recognised," says Jayne Vose, head of corporate training services.

"The standards have been around for about seven years, but up to the
time that Spring Skills got involved there had only been three achievers of the
full Modern Apprenticeship framework."

Vose has seen a recent shift in recruitment practices, with a growing
emphasis on attracting younger people. This has led to the development of a
premier Modern Apprenticeship which integrates vendor accreditation and NVQs in
a well-structured programme. "Some vendor qualifications have
competence-based elements within them, but they’re more about underpinning
technical knowledge," Vose says.

"What’s become obvious is that people also want some way of measuring
performance, which is what NVQs provide. The marrying up of the two gives a bit
more credibility to a vocational framework and enables employers to get an
accurate measure of a person’s ability to do the job. The sector as a whole
stands to gain, as it raises the stakes in standards of performance."

Current trainees stand to gain from the e-skills NTO initiative. Robert
Hudson is a junior technical engineer undertaking a Modern Apprenticeship with
Techland. The company supplies fax machines, but Hudson’s role is to provide
support for another product that enables customers to connect multiple machines
to a single switch. With one Microsoft certificate under his belt and another
soon to follow, Hudson hopes to complete his NVQ Level 2 and begin a Level 3
early next year.

"It will be much easier if they can work these exams in with the NVQ3
so you don’t have to duplicate things," he says. "If you’re doing
things over and over again, it starts to get boring and you can switch off. If
you have people not enjoying themselves and not motivated they’re probably not
producing work of the same standard as they otherwise would."

Beneficiary

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary from an increase in NVQs is the customer,
as education and training manager at Novell Naji Al Mahmoud explains. "I
believe the customer is the nucleus of the business and the dynamics of the
market is moving towards what is best for the customer.

"Novell, Cisco and Microsoft are very good at certificating technical
skills, but not the soft skills, like communication, which are so important for
the customer interface. Why not combine the two and offer both to the customer
as value added?" he says.

The NTO’s remit is to establish the best possible qualifications framework
for the industry. Bringing together some of the best technical qualifications
and some of the best ways of recognising soft skills and competence is exactly
what this programme is about. "By providing a very strong qualifications
framework that brings in the attractiveness and technical excellence of vendor
certification with the soft skills and all the weight that goes behind a
Government-based qualification, we’re offering something new and attractive to
the industry," says Gibbons.

E-skills NTO will monitor very closely how many people with vendor
qualifications take up NVQs and how many people want to base their NVQ on a
vendor qualification. In the longer term it will consider bringing vendor
qualifications more formally into the national standard. "We want to work
with IT vendors to provide the best qualifications for the industry that will
help businesses meet customer needs and help you and me use IT more
effectively," Gibbons concludes.

Comments are closed.