IT executives sometimes complain about how difficult it is to find top talent for their departments, and perhaps with good reason. According to a 2001 study by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), hiring managers predicted a shortfall of 425,000 skilled workers for a projected 900,000 positions. And 2001 was a year of lower demand for IT workers.
Some companies are investing more time and money in helping workers get the skills they need to meet the organization's needs. In some cases, these may be technical skills, such as Cisco or Microsoft certifications. In other cases, companies are training IT employees to become leaders.
One such program is the Information Management Leadership Program (IMLP) at General Electric, a highly diversified company with over 300,000 employees worldwide. GE business units include Appliances, Lighting, Aircraft Engines, Medical Systems, Plastics, Financial Services, and NBC. The IMLP has given thousands of graduates the skills they need to succeed.
How the program works
Mary Nuss, information technology training manager at GE Appliances, said the IMLP was started in 1980 and has produced thousands of graduates throughout GE’s business units. Over two years, employees in the IMLP rotate to a new position every six months.
"They always say, 'If we don't give you the responsibility as an IMLP participant, how will we know if you're capable of it otherwise?' so they give you really big, meaty assignments," said Jennifer Yurt, a recent graduate of the program.
They also receive formal training, including sessions at GE’s Crotonville “corporate university” in New York. Participants are full-time, salaried employees and receive benefits.
In addition to formal corporate training, IMLP participants get a lot of individual attention. “We have our HR resources, our management resources, our training resources focused on these kids for two years,” Nuss said.
Each is assigned a mentor to follow his or her progress in the program. During rotations, a senior-level manager in the department will provide specific advice related to their six-month projects. During each project, there are two more formalized opportunities for feedback, one at the three-month midpoint and another at the conclusion. Once a year, IMLP participants also go through a standard corporate performance review.
Competition for the IMLP is tough. At least a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information systems, or engineering is preferred, although business and liberal arts majors may be considered if they have proven leadership and technical abilities.
Two management paths
The IMLP has two paths: project/people management and technical management. In the project/people management path, students’ four rotations typically involve managing a project for an internal business client. According to Nuss, people in this track need to understand technology and use it to solve business problems, but working on technical issues may not be what they want to do day in and day out. A participant in the project/people management track may set his or her sights on ultimately becoming a CIO.
Participants in the technical management track may work with internal IT customers, rather than business clients, for three rotations. They may serve as database or network administrators and work on projects assigned by IT. However, Nuss said, even participants on the technical track will be assigned one six-month rotation as a project/people manager with a business client outside IT. A participant in this track may aspire to become a CTO.
At GE Appliances, the division in which Yurt and Nuss work, the chief technical officer reports to the CIO and is focused on applying technology to meet business needs. The CIO reports to the CEO and is more involved with ensuring that IT stays aligned with the company’s strategic vision. Other GE units may use different structures for upper-level IT management.
A participant’s view
Jennifer Yurt is one of the program’s less-traditional graduates. She has a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Arkansas, and had completed two years of a CIS degree program when she served as an intern for GE from August 1999 to January 2000. IMLP administrators felt that her performance as an intern, along with her business and computer science coursework, made her a good candidate for the program. She joined the company as a full-time employee in the IMLP soon after completing her internship.
Yurt now has completed the people/project management track of the IMLP. Her project management duties included writing technical specifications and supervising contractors in her rotations on the consumer Web site, service parts supply chain, technology, and Internet development teams.
Helping develop the GE Appliances’ Virtual Kitchen, which allows consumers to design a mock kitchen with GE appliances, was Yurt’s favorite project. In addition to other project management duties, she was on the team that interviewed and evaluated vendors and eventually chose the best one for the project.
Yurt credits the program with helping her gain more general IT knowledge and get some management experience on real-world projects. She said she also learned a great deal through the program’s coursework. Like all GE employees, Yurt learned about the Six Sigma quality improvement process, eventually earning a green belt. She also completed courses on networks, coding, program management, and presentation skills.
Some were “virtual courses” in which students worked in teams, a format that Yurt found helpful. “In today’s business world, you’re often dealing with global teams where you can’t always get together, so it was a great experience to learn the ups and downs of dealing with a team when you’re separated by many miles,” she said.
Identifying leaders early
Although GE sometimes recruits students directly into the IMLP through campus recruitment efforts, an increasing number of IMLP participants first serve as interns, as Yurt did. Nuss said investing in internships provides several advantages for both the company and the prospective employee.
“What we’ve found now is if we invest more money up front and bring in more people as interns, we will have a better opportunity to assess their skills, and they’ll have a better opportunity to assess the GE culture and the type of work we do in information technology,” Nuss said.
In addition to getting to know the company, the internships also let people get to know the area before committing to the IMLP. Nuss noted that most GE divisional headquarters are not in “glamorous” cities. For example, GE Appliances is in Louisville, KY, GE Lighting is in Cleveland, OH, and GE Medical Systems is in Waukesha, WI. After completing an internship, many prospective employees find that the less familiar cities have a lot to offer besides a good job.
By converting successful interns into IMLP participants, Nuss expects IT retention rates to increase because both the company and the employee have more realistic views of each other. “We give them big projects, we give them ownership, and we expect them to deliver results,” she said.