Business partners with WCTC to develop skills
by john campbell
Omni Resources requires mainframe computer programers for its computer consultancy business. But the skills needed for the work weren’t being taught to a sufficient degree by educational institutions.
So Omni decided to train its own programers, with some help from the Wisconsin Technical College system.
“Mainframe programers with seven or eight years’ experience are demanding $50 to $60 an hour,” Larry Litwin says, explaining why his employer, Omni Resources, Inc., is engaged in hiring and training mainframe computer programers.
“With so few people available who know these skills, it’s a bidding war to hire someone who knows how to program an IBM mainframe,” Litwin says. “Colleges and universities stopped teaching COBOL skills years ago, when predictions were made that personal computers and client server systems would eventually take over; and that hasn’t happened.”
Litwin, branch manager for Omni Resources in Brookfield, called upon the Business and Industry Development group at Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC) to put together a customized training program to teach mainframe programming.
Students become Omni employees, paid to attend classes. Their placement in the class determines their hourly pay rate. The first class graduated early in March.
Omni Resources is a data processing consultancy owned by Roger and Veronica Mueller, who founded the company 14 years ago. With headquarters in Brookfield, the company has branch offices in Madison, Green Bay, Minneapolis and Chicago – which serve as bases for more than 400 of its data processing consultants.
A number of those consultants are working with clients on the Year 2000 problem. (See cover story.)
“Many of our customers, like Firstar Bank, M&I Data Services, Case Corp., Kohl’s Department Stores and a dozen more mainframe owners, either have to fix what they’ve got or install new computer systems,” Litwin says.
Ninety percent of these mainframe computers use COBOL language. There are thousands of companies just like them, Litwin says, and it will take a team of programers a year to screen their records. The cost will be measured in tens of millions of dollars, he says.
To accommodate the need for mainframe programers, as well as to reduce the costs for their mainframe customers, Omni contacted the Business and Industry Development Center of WCTC. Together, they developed a curriculum designed around Omni’s needs. Classes were limited to 10 students who would attend class eight hours a day for eight weeks at Omni’s branch office in Brookfield.
Access to mainframes was contracted for with M&I Data Services.
“We had no trouble getting applicants for this program,” Litwin says. “First of all, we looked for people who had some prior familiarity with computers. I was amazed at how many people we got who wanted to change careers. In our first class, ages ranged from 22 to 52. We had a molecular biologist, a CPA, an aircraft mechanic, just to name a few, as well as an employee from one of our customers, whom they wanted us to train. We encourage our customers to send their personnel. If they hire one of our trainees, we give them a rebate.” Not one person dropped out and all 10 completed the course with A and B grades.
David Demitras, one of the graduates in the first class, had been working part-time with Federal Express and attending UW-Milwaukee.
“We had a lot of reading to do at nights,” Demitras recalls.
Laurie Pettit, the former molecular biologist at Wisconsin Medical College, admitted the course was tough, eight hours a day, five days a week. Class members were united in a common goal, as everyone helped each other.
The program developed by WCTC has some unique incentives added by Omni Resources, which wanted to get the most out of its $9,600 per student investment.
“We pay the students $10 an hour to attend, and pay their medical benefits. They must agree to stay with us for one year after their training,” Litwin explains. “Those students who finish with an A in the overall program start out at $17 an hour; B-students, $16 an hour. C-students, $15. However, we did not have any C-students in this first group.” Litwin attributed their success to the thorough screening by Omni recruiters and aptitude testing done by WCTC.
The eight weeks’ schooling, worth 12 college credits at WCTC toward an associate degree, involves five separate courses. A course like COBOL accounts for four credits and a course entitled Information Technology Consulting Skills is worth only one credit.
“The consulting skills course is typically a soft skill,” Litwin admitted, “But we insisted that this training be added. It’s vitally important that our employees relate to our customers and their problems. I’ve never had to replace one of our consultants on a job for poor computer skills. Failure to get along with other people is more often the reason for pulling an employee off a job. People are our products.”
Ron Fischer, associate dean from WCTC, reviewed student evaluations with the four-member faculty after the completion of the first eight weeks. Based on student suggestions, they met to discuss possible changes. Larry Litwin would like to conduct five eight-week classes a year, if the holidays in the last quarter permit such scheduling.
The partnership of Omni Resources and WCTC is an example of academia working to solve problems in business and industry.
“I don’t know of another state, except perhaps Arizona, where state-owned schools work with business and industry as closely as we do in Wisconsin,” Fischer stated. “The Wisconsin system, where the colleges and universities work to solve industry problems, is a model other states are following.”
April 1998, Small Business Times, Milwaukee
WCTC computer skills program
Business partners with WCTC to develop skills