Designer training for your IT staff

A company that makes radar systems for the F-16 fighter jet needs to hire hundreds of IT workers. Learn how this defense contractor has boosted recruiting efforts with a unique training program.

Recruiting and retaining employees are among the biggest roadblocks for IT departments and companies across the U.S. Recently, 50 percent of executives questioned in a survey for the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) cited the lack of skilled/trained workers as the “most significant barrier” to their company’s growth during the next year.

So how do you find qualified employees and hold onto the ones you have? A unique partnership in Baltimore may hold some answers.

Called the “Object Academy,” it’s a program that teaches advanced IT training, specifically, object-oriented programming.

The program is a partnership of three groups:
  1.  University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), the university that provides the location for the classes and helps coordinate the program
  2.  Blueprint Technologies, a software architecture firm that provides the instructors for the Academy
  3.  Northrop Grumman, a major defense contractor that sends its staff members to the Academy for training
Object-oriented programming is a method for a full system problem. The programming is organized around objects rather than actions, data rather than logic. It’s easy to design modules that can be reused. C++ and Java are the most popular object-oriented languages today.
Back to school
Here’s how the Academy works. Software engineers from Northrop Grumman attend classes one day a week at UMBC for one semester. UMBC’s Division of Professional Education and Training coordinates and facilitates the programs.

The classes are unlike other university classes because software architects from Blueprint Technologies are at the podium to teach the classes instead of UMBC professors.

“You can teach academic skills at a university, but finding seasoned practitioners on various projects is not as easy in the academic environment,” said Greg Hodges, a software engineer manager at Northrop Grumman’s Electronic Sensors and Systems Sector in Baltimore.

There is a huge shortage of tech workers in the region where Northrop Grumman is recruiting. USA TODAY cited data from the accounting and consulting firm Deloitte and Touche, indicating that nine states in the Washington D.C. region—including Maryland—have 70 percent of the fastest-growing tech companies. Thousands of tech jobs remain unfilled each year.

“There’s no question that this gap is a serious issue facing Maryland and the entire nation,” said Craig Weidemann, vice provost for UMBC. “It is clear that one approach to addressing this skill set shortage is through the development of partnerships like the Object Technology Academy, which bring the University and private sector together.”

Blueprint Technologies uses object technology to help its clients build software systems. The Object Academy throws out the idea of sending employees to a weeklong training seminar or removing employees from their jobs for days at a time. Instead, the training is more of a traditional academic approach. Workers attend classes on a semester schedule, though they are in class just one day a week.

“No business has the time to send folks out a week or more (for training); we were willing to arrange our schedule around Northrop Grumman, and it’s made for a win-win situation for the both of us,” said Roger Hebden, vice president and founder of Blueprint Technologies.

On-the-job payoff
So far, about 50 of Northrop Grumman’s software and system engineers have graduated from the Academy, including Hodges. Hundreds more still need to take the class. The company has saved both time and money with the special training program.

A key benefit is that employees receive the same education method. “They may be on different jobs,” said Hodges, “but they have a common vocabulary. Employees take more leadership roles to drive into object direction.”

The program has also helped recruiting and retention efforts. Northrop Grumman is preparing to hire several hundred new IT employees. The training offered is viewed as an attractive part of the hiring package. Hodges says he can’t correlate the Academy directly to attrition rates at the company, but he says the rates are some of the lowest in the industry.

What’s next?
Currently, only employees at Northrop Grumman take classes from the Object Academy. But UMBC and Blueprint Technologies are looking to package the concept. Hebden says public enrollment for government and commercial companies could be ready by the fall. The course would target four groups:
  • Executives looking to reduce their software development budgets
  • Project managers who want to be more efficient
  • Software architects
  • Senior developers

How can you repeat the success?
If you're thinking of adopting a similar training strategy, here are some questions to consider:
  • Is there a local university that already has a professional education program in place?
  • How much time can you can devote to training? Engineers at Northrop Grumman attend classes just one day a week, but that can add up. Can a university tailor a schedule to meet your needs?
  • Who will teach the classes? This was a crucial element in the partnership for Northrop Grumman. You will likely need to look outside of the academic community to find the experts to teach the advanced technologies your staff needs to learn.
  • Can your staff members work as instructors for portions of the training? Northrop Grumman may use its own employees as instructors in the Object Academy.
Universities are supposed to be preparing students for the real world. How would you suggest that your local college campus bring a dose of real-life IT teaching into the classroom? Post a comment below or send us a note.

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