FURTHER education colleges will play a crucial role in an American company's ambitious plan to address the serious shortage of workers with expertise in computer networks.
The training programme was announced this week by Cisco Systems, the leading producer of Internet-related products with a turnover of pound;5 billion and 14,000 employees.
The Cisco Networking Academy Programme aims to create a new source of skilled people to work for the company, as well as its partners, resellers and end-users. It will train students to design, build and maintain computer networks, and speed up their flow into the workforce. It aims to create a pool of workers ready to fill vacancies.
Mike Couzens, director of marketing and training, said that Cisco recruits about 100 people across Europe each month, but that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find enough with the right skills.
Edinburgh University is acting as the Cisco Academy Training Centre. Last week it started training people from what Cisco calls "regional academies" , a role for which it receives a fee. These regional academies will incorporate the Cisco programme into their own courses and in turn will recruit and train local "academies" - mostly FE colleges.
The regional academies include the Universities of Central England (UCE), Wolverhampton and the Highlands and Islands, NESCOT formerly North-east Surrey College Of Technology, Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland and the Computer Network Institute.
The networking academy curriculum comprises 280 hours of material and is aimed at students aged 16 years and over. Mr Couzens says it is "very vocational" and pedagogically sound. UCE has incorporated the Cisco course into its BSc course as four new modules.
Cisco will supply computer equipment for some local academies and expects to be able to place students on internships internally or with other companies.
Bob Lewis, education and market development manager, said the response from FE colleges had been very positive. Many believed the course would help attract students because it was relevant and close to developments in industry.
The programme has grown rapidly in the United States, where the number of academies has shot up from 60 in October last year to 917 today. It is also being launched in Germany and Austria.
Mr Couzens said that the skills gap was widening and pointed out that the number of senior-level information technology vacancies advertised nationally in the UK had doubled since 1994. "Even if we set up academies as fast as we can, I doubt that we can plug that gap. The best we can do is help, but we should be able to make a significant difference," he said.
The initiative, which is costing Cisco several hundred thousand pounds, will be promoted by a roadshow in November.
For information about becoming a Cisco academy, call Bob Lewis or Jane Lewis on 0181 756 8000 or see www.cisco.com.