Despite a recession that has hit the economy in general and the technology sector in particular, Microsoft Corp. has announced the launch of a new information technology (IT) training and certification program for both high schools and higher education institutions.

Other providers of training and certification programs aimed at high-school students also predict a continued demand for IT training courses, despite the softening economy.

The Microsoft IT Academy program includes product licenses, faculty training at regional centers, technical support, and community-building tools—such as online seminars and newsletters—for participants. A reduced-cost membership package is available to high schools for $1,500, while a higher tier membership is offered for $5,000 per school. The total estimated value of the latter package is $27,000, Microsoft said.

The IT Academy program replaces the Microsoft Authorized Academic Training Provider program, which began in 1994. As the demands on the IT work force started to change, Microsoft received requests for changes to its training program, said Diana Carew, program manager in the company’s education solutions group. Participants asked for more faculty training and earlier access to new technology and product releases.

“We’ve packed both of these into the new [program],” said Carew.

Microsoft says students are more receptive to training when their teachers get it too. The company expects demand for its vendor-specific training to be strong among both high schools and two- and four-year colleges.

Although Microsoft admits that some schools might prefer vendor-neutral certification, the company has found that its position as an IT market leader carries weight among its client schools.

In contrast to vendor-specific programs such as Microsoft’s, 3Com Corp. offers its NetPrep program. A series of eight courses designed by WestNet, the NetPrep program provides vendor-neutral training in areas such as networking to more than 450 K-12 schools. 3Com donates the licenses for this program to participating schools.

“Our end goal is to train students for IT and networking [jobs],” said Bill Swift, marketing director for education at 3Com.

Joe Scullion is vice president of WestNet, 3Com’s partner in the NetPrep venture. He believes that, as the recession deepens, schools will shy away from vendor-specific programs because they are too narrow, while programs that are vendor-neutral and linked to college degree programs—such as NetPrep—will continue to experience growth.

“[People are] nervous of product training,” he said.

But Microsoft reports no softening of demand for its certification programs. “We’re not finding that at all,” said Carew. She contends that “certification is a new credential. … Employers certainly value [certification].”

Her conclusions are borne out by a report last year from the U.S. Department of Education, which found that, while one in five IT job advertisements indicate a degree is required, one in eight want ads indicate that a certification is a “plus.”

At the time of the report, an estimated 1.9 million IT certifications had been awarded nationwide, the majority of those since 1997. The report indicates that IT certification is becoming a parallel industry to higher education for those seeking a leg up in the job market.

IT job openings have decreased in the past year, but estimates still place the number of vacancies around 400,000 nationwide. And while the number of positions is declining, the pool of workers is as well.

Because of the severity of the work-force shortage, Carew said, the United States government has been more generous in the granting of H1B visas, which allow foreign nationals into the country to work. After the attacks on Sept. 11, security concerns might lead to increased restrictions, thus forcing businesses to rely more on a home-grown work force.

Training and certification programs such as those offered by Microsoft and 3Com attract strong interest from schools in areas that traditionally are isolated from technology, such as rural and American Indian schools. “I’ve heard from a number of American Indian schools,” said Swift. “This is a way to get back to what’s going on [in technology].”

Although both the Microsoft IT Academy and the 3Com/WestNet NetPrep programs are aimed at students who plan to continue their study at the postsecondary level, the companies involved say the programs are a good investment for schools to make even for students who will enter the job market immediately after high school.

Students who leave the IT Academy program after high school “do have the skills” to be competitive in the job market, Carew said.

The 3Com/WestNet NetPrep program is designed as a “two plus two” program, linking eleventh and twelfth grade participants with local community colleges. The Microsoft IT Academy program is open to all accredited high schools and institutions of higher education.

Another vendor-specific program, similar to the Microsoft offering, is the Cisco Networking Academy. The Cisco program offers fee-based training for students and teachers at high schools and colleges in all 50 states.

Links:

Microsoft IT Academy
http://www.microsoftitacademy.com

3Com Corp.
http://www.3com.com

Cisco Systems Inc.
http://www.cisco.com