By Lana Gates

Technology changes so rapidly that if you don’t keep up with it, you’re sure to miss out. That’s why training is essential to consultants and contractors to keep up and keep marketable in such a quick-paced society.

In fact, training has picked up dramatically both online and in training centers across the country.

“If you don’t train your staff on new techniques and software tools, they’ll leave you,” notes Matthew Corbett, group manager for InfoTech Contract Services in Boston. They’ll go to another company that will train them.

The key here, Corbett continues, is to remember that training is an ongoing process. “As soon as people stop learning, you lose your competitive advantage.”

A contractor who stays current with training can reap many benefits, including more marketability, less downtime, and higher pay rates. However, training requires time and money, and it takes away consultants’ billable hours.

So when do consultants find time to train? With the rapid addition of new training and certification opportunities, what are the best types of training to receive? How marketable does training make someone?

Contract Professional on TechRepublic

Contract Professional  (CP) is a monthly magazine written specifically for contract IT workers. CP provides information on technology trends, training and job opportunities, tax and financial issues, and contractor-friendly cities.

To read more, visit Contract Professional online. This first part of a two-part article appeared in an earlier issue of CP.

Know the variables
Various types and flavors of training, from conferences and seminars to college classes to certifications to online training, books, and magazines, are available. What type of training is right for you depends on a number of variables.

One variable is your learning style. If you learn by doing, then attending a seminar that does not offer hands-on training would not be for you.

You also need to know what’s in demand in the market. Be aware of the industry, what’s hot, and what’s not. SAP consultant Dave Crowley cautions, “Don’t hop on too quickly to the hottest thing; make sure it’s grounded. Don’t be the last one there, either, otherwise the market’s flooded.”

Crowley, who owns Acre Wood Consulting, L.L.C., in Traverse City, MI, differentiates between leading-edge and bleeding-edge technologies. “You’re cut if you’re not careful,” he warns.

Another variable is money. How much can you afford to spend on training?

You can purchase books pretty inexpensively, typically for $20 to $60. Seminars and conferences can run $300 to $900 or more. Certifications cost about $100 per exam. Self-study kits for certifications—Novell’s CNE (Certified Novell Engineer), for example—start at $1,495. Instructor-led training can add $9,500 to the cost of the exams.

Then there are 20-day boot camps you can take for about $8,000.

Time is yet another variable. The nice thing about books is you can read them when you have a few moments of downtime.

You can attempt a 20-day course if you can afford that much time off and think you can absorb the material. Online courses are another option, stretching six to 10 weeks.

Classes, however, require a bigger time commitment. College classes probably take the longest, but you may retain what you learn better by spreading it out over a longer period of time than, say, a week-long certification boot camp.

The problem with these “fast-track” classes, according to consultant Jackie Grubb, owner of Boston-based Plum Suite Solutions, is that they “go against educational theory and how human beings actually learn because it’s all crammed into one, two, three, or four days.”

Prior to becoming a computer consultant, Grubb taught in junior high school and worked on curricula to make classes more useful and meaningful to students.

Although you will pick up some information and ideas at these fast-track classes, she says, “it’s not really adequate to go out and do an actual project in that particular language or product—at least not for me it isn’t.”

Many of the seminars out there are designed to sell rather than teach, she says. In fact, a solutions provider once discouraged Grubb from taking a course for that very reason.

“They were processing a lot of bodies through this course,” she explains, “but maybe the top 10 percent were walking away knowing what they needed to know.”

Most consultants seem to agree that conferences and seminars just aren’t worth their time or money. They have to be gone a week or two at a time and miss billable hours.

On top of that, they say, the conferences tend to be costly, kind of slow, and general. Depending on your level of expertise, the conferences may be a waste of time.

“At most conferences, I find myself more knowledgeable than the instructor,” explains programmer/analyst consultant Brandon Forest, based in Davis, CA.

What is one to do to keep up with the rapid pace of technology if you already know more than classroom instructors? Most consultants believe strongly in on-the-job training.

“The way people learn the best is by getting their hands dirty and doing a project,” Grubb says.

How do you get on-the-job training? You have to have enough skill and experience to land the job before you can learn on the job.

The key here, according to consultant Brian Halkett, based in Granite Bay, CA, “is knowing how to solve problems and having the tools to do that rather than having the answers. Focusing on the problem-solving aspect exposes you to new areas on the job.”

One way to get your foot in the door is to take advantage of staffing-firm-provided training. More and more staffing firms these days are offering training to their consultants at little or no charge. Corbett cites two main reasons for the proliferation of training. One is the scarcity of talent.

“Rather than waiting for experienced people, companies are looking to train less experienced people,” he explains.

Two, products are becoming more and more user-friendly. As a result, it is easier to train people on these newer technologies. Providing continued growth opportunities for consultants can lead to a higher retention rate and a higher-caliber candidate.

Houston-based staffing firm Comsys offers more than 170 computer-based training courses through a contract with SmartForce. Comsys offers these courses free of charge to any consultant who has been with the firm six or more months.

If a consultant joins the firm and wants to take one of these courses before being there six months, the cost is $200 a course. Once the consultant’s six-month anniversary rolls around, Comsys reimburses that $200 fee, so essentially the training is still free.

While this is a bit costly for Comsys, the company believes it is the right thing to do, according to Caress Kennedy, senior vice president of marketing in the New York City office. “We believe it’s a cost of our doing business,” she explains. “In order to retain consultants, you have to give them an environment where they can continue to grow and develop and not just be seen as a commodity.”

If you’re an independent trying to pick up a new skill, you can always volunteer somewhere just to get that on-the-job training under your belt to make you more marketable to someone else. Forest, Crowley, and Sacramento, CA-based consultant Matthew Walton, among others, agree that experience is indubitably more important than classroom learning. That’s also true with certification.

What kinds of training have proven most valuable for you?

Is there a training course or a book that you’ve used to help hone your skills as a consultant? Tell us about it by posting your comments below or sending us an e-mail.