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Networking gets a plug

IT graduates who seek to add networking strings to their bow will not only help avert a Europe-wide shortage says Louise Goldsbury but also bag themselves a niche career

Demand for IT graduates with networking skills has reached critical levels, say European businesses. The International Data Corporation (IDC) interviewed 12,000 information systems managers, predicting that the shortfall of new IT network professionals will reach almost 600,000 by 2002. The UK will see the second highest shortage in Western Europe, topped only by Germany.

Since many of these vital skills and knowledge are only attainable through a formal education, IDC concludes that partnerships must be accelerated between industry and academic institutions.

As one example, Cisco Systems runs a Networking Academy program to teach students the theory and practice of designing, implementing and managing networks. The eight semesters progress over two years from basic to advanced networking topics to achieve the CCNA (Cisco Certified Networking Associate) or CCNP (Cisco Certified Networking Professional) certifications.

The company trains regional academy instructors at its Cisco Networking Training Centres (CATCs), who go on to train instructors at local academies, where sixth form students and undergraduates are taught. There are currently over 3,000 Cisco academies in 58 countries.

"We have to train up young people because there are not enough of them coming qualified from universities, so we want to expose them to networks early enough to impact on what they could go on to do," says Bob Lewis, manager of the UK project. "We need a market capable of absorbing our products and technologies, otherwise our growth is delayed, but that vested self-interest benefits others in the industry, including schools."

Technology is not only the subject, but the means of the program, which is Web-based. Students work through the online curriculum and tests at their computers, providing instant feedback and performance tracking. "We have devised a very holistic education system, from how teachers are trained, to how the subjects are delivered and how students can manipulate the curriculum to the way they prefer to learn," says Lewis. "It's a whole e-learning environment."

The regularly-updated content consists of text, audio, visual, practical lab work and 6,000 animations, with 3-D images allowing pupils to simulate building a network, and 25 million assessment items. Cisco can analyse their results to identify which weak areas need further development. Instructors also have access to an online gide to teaching the course, including lesson plans and explanations of lab exercises.

Cally Maciver, 17, is one of two girls on the CCNA course at Greenswood College, Essex. "It's a different way of learning because we are basically self-taught. All the chapters are on-screen and then you are free to do the practicals when you feel you're ready. That's a lot better because there's no pressure," she says. "You have to be motivated, but you should already think that way to be on the course and for when you get a job at the end of it."

Her classmate Adrian Risidore agrees: "It's very laid back as you don't have to do anything at a certain time, but it gets much harder. It will be worth it though - we've been told there's going to be a shortage of networking staff so we'll have guaranteed jobs."

Despite these benefits, the poor image of networking puts off many young people. "My friends all think it's really boring, but that's because they don't know anything about it," says Maciver. David Cornwell, 18, adds: "All the IT we've done at school has been so generic, but this is more applied to the field of networking. We enjoy it because we know what we're doing."

When asked their main attraction to study and work in networking, the three students are unanimous: "Lots of money."

Senior lecturer Neil Workman, who runs the program at the University of Central England (UCE), says the industry has to find ways to appeal to students: "I believe networking has an image problem. People think it's dull because it's about engineering and technology, but it's actually challenging and exciting. Students get to deal with the latest technologies, applications, e-commerce and all sorts of things associated with the Internet."

Recently the students gained real-life experience at January's BETT show by helping to install an intranet between exhibitors and seminar halls. Along with a team of four UCE students, tutors and Cisco engineers, they built and connected the 25-station network broadcasting live video feeds of keynote speeches, seminars and interviews with visitors, and maintained it over the four-day event.

UCE was the first regional academy in Europe, and is also a local academy, having embedded the curriculum into degree modules: BSc Computer Networks for Business; BEng Communications and Networks; BEng Software Design and Networks. In June 1999 it was promoted to a CATC, thus becoming involved at all levels.

According to Workman, "lots of teachers are getting hooked" and more instructors and trainers are always needed.

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