EDS pushing massive IT retraining effort

Electronic Data Systems has embarked on a mammoth retraining program aimed at providing 20,000 of its 87,000 technical workers with updated business and technology skills by the end of this year.

The effort began about a year ago, when the IT services giant began evaluating the skill sets and proficiencies of its 117,000 worldwide workers and consolidated multiple IT skills databases into a single SAP skills repository, said Dave Arcemont, vice president for global learning and development.

The program is part of the EDS Multi-Year Plan, which Arcemont described as a "revolving footprint" of where the company is going over the next three years. "We worked very closely with the product managers in the portfolio group to see what skills were needed to support" customer demand, he said.

That analysis of customer project demand found that EDS needed to retrain a large number of its 87,000 technical workers, who have legacy technology skills, in newer technologies such as .Net, Java and J2EE, said Arcemont. Last September, EDS launched a retraining Web portal for its 87,000 technical workers, encouraging them to take advantage of online and classroom courses being offered to them.

"We had learning advisers on a hot line to provide real-time coaching," said Arcemont. "So if you have been a Cobol programmer for the last 12 years, we can't tell them to become a .Net programmer, but we can point them in the right direction."

At present, EDS has had 17,200 employees enter the retraining program since Sept. 15.

EDS has set a target of having 20,000 technical workers enroll in one or more of the 718 training courses it has set up for 2005, said Arcemont. Although he declined to quantify the amount of investment EDS is pouring into its retraining effort, Arcemont did say that the company has added US$35 million to its training budget for this year.

Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director at Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing services firm, who is familiar with EDS's retraining efforts, said she is impressed with its approach. "They're reaching out to companies like IBM, Dell and Fujitsu, and they were humble enough to say, 'We don't have all the knowledge, and who can help us with this?'"

Spencer Lee said she's also pleased to see that EDS isn't imposing retraining on its IT workers. "They're not saying they want people who can do either/or but people who can do both and teach them a new skill. Because there will continue to be needs for people with those legacy skills," she said.

Most CIOs and IT organizations mistakenly look at retraining as a one-time event, said Mark Lutchen, a partner in the IT business risk management practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York.

"They recognize a set of needed skills, they develop them, and then they forget about them until they become obsolete," he said.

Another problem CIOs face, said Lutchen, is that when they present IT workers with opportunities to broaden their technical and business acumen, most technical workers don't want to bother to learn new skills. That's troublesome on several levels, said Lutchen, not the least of which is that it can lead to a disproportionate number of high-salaried, experienced IT workers with outdated skill sets.

Plus, technical workers who are willing to receive additional training "want to narrowly focus on the technical skills only, and that's not the right approach," said Lutchen. "People skills and communication skills are just as important as the technical skills in aligning IT with the business."

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