Back To School: Funding An Ongoing Education

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In IT, skill sets can become outdated in a matter of months. To stay current, IT education must be an ongoing process — which can mean continual tuition and exam fees for techies. How can IT pros plan to pay for their never-ending skills development?

An IT education differs from other types because it is necessarily ongoing — students in IT or an IT-related field start by assembling a skill set that will quickly become outdated, and they must stay current. IT professionals remain lifelong students of technology, maintaining a continuous education through various means, with certification being one. Therefore, IT professionals have to be able to finance not only the establishment, but also the extension, of such an education.

Mladen Vouk, computer science professor and department head and information technology associate vice provost at North Carolina State University, said the college goes to great lengths to impress upon students that their IT education will be ongoing.

“That’s the first thing out of the instructors’ and advisers’ mouths when the students walk in,” Vouk said. “The advisers always tell them, ‘Welcome, it’s great to see you. Please remember the one thing we are trying to teach you is how to update yourself and your knowledge because IT knowledge has a limited shelf life, and you have to continually keep upgrading yourself.’ It’s not like math or some other thing where you can learn something and then reuse it and hone it — you really have to keep up with the trends and the changes.”

This is certainly a sentiment echoed by the industry. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. employs about 6,000 IT professionals, making IT the second-biggest department in the company. With this much IT talent on hand, the company is cognizant of the need to maintain and update its workforce’s expertise.

“Five years is a lifetime in the IT skill life cycle,” said Randall Stevens, director of IT recruiting for the company’s talent acquisition department. “If you were an expert five years ago, the likelihood is that 90 percent of your total skills base is, if not obsolete, at least approaching obsolescence. So, it requires constant and ongoing formal education, as well as additional training.”

Starting From Scratch

Scott Griffin is a 49-year-old microcomputer specialist working for Orange County government in Florida. His IT education began in high school, when he earned an associate degree in electronic digital technology from a local community college. Griffin’s degree initially was sponsored by the local government.

“The county helped finance about two years, and it took me three years, going to high school and the local community college at the same time,” he said.

Griffin proceeded to earn a bachelor’s degree in electronics management from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He said the difficulties of financing this went beyond those of a normal education.

“At the time, we had to build our own microcomputer, starting from a blank sheet of paper and actually designing it and building it,” Griffin said. “For college students, that was expensive.”

He paid for all this through grants and students loans.

“Then, I also ended up working on copiers full time for a local company to pay the rent or for whatever else I needed,” Griffin said.

He graduated in 1989. Since then, Griffin has earned 10 computer certifications — Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA), Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), MCSE: Security, MCSA: Security, Certified Internet Webmaster (CIW), Security+, I-Net+, Network+ and A+ — to keep his skills up to date and well-developed.

About half of these have been paid for by his employers and half by himself out of pocket.

Griffin said employers should assist IT professionals in paying for certifications and general IT education, both because the employer benefits from having more skill on hand and because ignoring an employee’s skill development could compromise retention.

“Employees, when they’re out there trying to get their education or certification, they’re showing an interest in their own growth and development, and I think an employer should take advantage of that, not just for themselves but also for the employee,” Griffin said. “Because if the employer just says, ‘Yeah, well, you’ve got the certifications — we’ll just ignore them,’ the employee thinks, ‘What am I doing this for?’ and ‘Well, I have these new skills. I want to use
them.’ They’re chomping at the bit and may decide to go elsewhere.”

Griffin’s advice for aspiring IT professionals looking to finance their education (either to begin a career or develop one) is to be resourceful and plan ahead.

“If you’re going to try to do it on the cheap, you can go on computer boards and find out about vouchers or discounts,” he said. “If you need to get a book, the library is an OK resource, and maybe one of your fellow co-workers would have a book you can borrow.”

He also advises students to take certification tests while still in school rather than waiting and spending more to learn the skills a second time around.

“I talk to students who are taking classes, and I ask, ‘Well, have you taken that certification?’ They say, ‘After I graduate, I’ll take the certification.’ I say, ‘Why are you doubling your efforts? If you’re studying it, why not take the exam on it?’”

The College Experience

Starting freshman year of college, the means by which incoming IT students can finance their education are fairly standard: through parental support, personal funds gained through employment, financial aid, student loans, grants or scholarships. Some forms of financial aid do not need to be paid back to the institution providing them.

“These avenues are general for everyone in a university,” Vouk said. “Computer science, like other departments, will have scholarships or some kind of fellowships for students, which are given either to the needy or those who have outstanding grades or show outstanding academic potential. They may have IT-related names, so it could be Cisco fellowships or scholarships or IBM fellowships or scholarships, but they still follow the university rules about financing students.”

Graduate degrees in IT are financed differently — general master’s degrees are paid for via the same means, but doctoral degrees tend to be supported by the university itself.

“Almost invariably, as you go up in the degrees, almost all of your education is covered by the funds the university provides, and so that’s sort of a scale that one has to be aware of,” Vouk said. “Every single one of our computer science Ph.D. students, unless they’re students working in industry and just do it part time, are all supported for a certain period of time. That makes getting the degree much easier but, of course, the demands are much higher, and it’s a different population. So, in financing your degree, the question is what you’re after.”

Employer-Funded

NCSU feels students entering the workforce should make it a priority to find an employer that will finance their ongoing education.

“Being supported by a company to continuously update your skills is important because, otherwise, you’re doing it on your own,” Vouk said. “And we do it as a university — we allow our employees to go take courses in various forms.”

He also said graduate studies are funded by employers much more often than undergraduate studies at NCSU.

“I don’t think that industry feels it needs to fund an undergraduate program,” Vouk said.

Perhaps it should — there’s been a steady decline in the number of computer science graduates and interest in computer science degrees in the United States since the dot-com bubble burst in 2000.

According to survey results published this year by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, after peaking in 1999 and 2000, interest in computer science as a major fell 70 percent between 2000 and 2005. In the fall of 2005, 1.1 percent of incoming freshmen indicated computer science as their probable major.

According to the Computer Research Association’s 2007 Taulbee Survey, after declining for six years, the number of new computer science majors in fall 2006 was about half of what it was in fall 2000 (15,958 versus 7,798). The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by doctorate-granting computer science departments fell 28 percent between 2003-2004 and 2005-2006.

“IT workers are a small and declining portion of new U.S. university graduates,” Stevens said. “Clearly, that is not a huge population available for hire.”

This is why Nationwide is proactive in financing its IT professionals’ continuous education.

“In a declining supply market, you have to manufacture a greater supply,” Stevens said. “We asked ourselves how we could most cost-efficiently manufacture more IT workers, and that was to be willing to step up to the plate financially.”

After one year of employment, associates at Nationwide are eligible for the company’s tuition-reimbursement program. They’re allowed an amount capped at $5,250 a year.

“That has to pass the muster of being applicable to the associate’s job,” Stevens said. “So, if you’re vice president of HR, and you’re taking massage therapy classes, that probably wouldn’t work. But if you’re nondegree or approaching a master’s degree, or if you’re looking for specific technical training, we’ll pay for it.”

When it comes to certifications, Nationwide employees have to successfully complete the program, however that’s defined, to qualify for reimbursement.

“Some of them are not test-based, so then it’s just a pass/fail or a complete/incomplete, but they have to successfully complete it,” Stevens said. “Certifications are a big part of what we pay for.”

Stevens said he does not feel incoming IT professionals regard Nationwide’s tuition-reimbursement program as a high-priority draw to coming onboard.

“It might be a secondary benefit when it comes to the recruiting process, but it really isn’t a primary benefit,” Stevens said. “We’re finding that the ability to work on cutting-edge projects, using a skill that is currently in-demand, is so much greater a proportion of the enticement or recruiting process that if they’re choosing between two opportunities, our willingness to support ongoing education might be icing on the cake, but it’s not part of the layers of the cake.”

Once onboard, though, many of Nationwide’s IT associates do take the company up on its offer of tuition reimbursement. But the number is not a sizeable majority of the company’s IT workforce, something Stevens attributes to the difficulty of finding the time to pursue classes and achieve an adequate work-life balance.

“It’s a difficult balance, but it’s table stakes to get in,” Stevens said. “The IT population (not just at Nationwide but nationally) is savvy enough to recognize the incredibly short life cycle of skills’ value, and so they’re aware that part of the price of entry of getting into an IT career is that it’s going to require ongoing maintenance of skill sets.”

For this reason, Stevens said the willingness of companies such as Nationwide to work with IT professionals in scheduling continuous education is as valuable as financing the education itself.

“I would argue that equally as important as the straight-dollar cost is the willingness of managers of associates who are taking advantage of these opportunities to flex their schedules to give them periods of time when they can take advantage of study groups or test review or whatever,” Stevens said. “When you look at value to the associate, that’s close to equivalent to the straight-dollar reimbursement of tuition costs.” 8

–    Daniel Margolis, dmargolis@certmag.com

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Daniel Margolis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daniel Margolis is a longtime professional writer and editor. Daniel was managing editor of Certification Magazine from 2006 to 2012.

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