The need for an Onshore Technical Apprenticeship model to counter the falling ladder

This post is a little bit different to my other posts, it highlights a challenge that most of us in the western world is facing, now that offshoring and nearshoring is just a reality of life. I think companies need to think about an onshore technical IT apprenticeship program that allows them to build more technical skills onshore. And it does not matter whether you are a consulting company, an IT shop or a manufacturing business, software is an important part of your business and you better keep building the skills required to run it.

When I started working for my current employer over 10 years ago everyone did some kind of technical work as a new joiner, I personally did some Cobol programming, many of my friends worked with Java. Then as we got more and more senior we had a good understanding of what it takes to develop a solution.

Nowadays if you are trying to staff a technical onshore role, it is actually not easy to find people and often you look to colleagues from offshore centres to help out. A lot of project and program management is still being done onshore and many of the current leaders still come from my generation of “Been there, done that”.
Unfortunately in many IT teams onshore it is today more important to learn exactly 3 technical skills: Excel, Powerpoint and MS Project…

ladderA bit of background:
The problem I describe is what I call the “Falling Ladder” or which in a TED talk was called “sinking skill ladder” (around 10:50 into this video http://www.ted.com/talks/nirmalya_kumar_india_s_invisible_entrepreneurs/transcript?language=en#t-698501) – once you have given all the on the ground technical work to delivery centers, you will soon realise that the people onshore do not have the knowledge to design solutions really well, so you start handing over design as well. Soon you don’t have skills to really project manage anymore as all you can do is manage the spreadsheet, so you hand over project management as well. And then soon all there is onshore is the demand creation either through sales externally or internally. And would you trust a Technical Architect who has never seen code? Okay – this is a slight exaggeration, but you get the gist.
I had a friend who recently left the IT company he was working for and after 2 months of job search we caught up, here is what he said: “It is actually quite hard to find a job if you don’t have any skills beyond excel and MS project, the market is looking for people who understand the technology you are dealing with”. You end up with two choices you get some of the younger guns for the newest set of technologies or someone much older who still has the technical skills of well established technologies, but is that sustainable?

So what should you do:
I think you need to find a way to create the next generation of technical leaders. Technology and specifically software will remain an important part of your business. It is unrealistic to expect to all IT work in-house and onshore, but to really drive technology to the extent that you need to, it is important to retain technical talent. Create some roles in your team that are onshore even if it is unpopular. The investment you make here is small and will pay back easily if you can keep good technical people around and grow them as the next technology leaders in your company.

Picture: The Fall by Celine Nadeau
License: Creative Commons

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