'Proper' qualifications are increasingly important to career developmen t in the computer industry.
Continuous skills development is the key to keeping up-to-date with change, especially in computing, so it is surprising that managers and academics see training in the industry as inconsistent and lacking in national standards.

Partly, this is because computing is a young industry, where much training is done on the job. Computing staff have taken the view that they are as good as their last CVs; formal qualifications are less important than previous experience.

As a consequence, there are plenty of mid-career computing professionals who have never studied the subject in a formal way, although they will have taken training courses to build up technical skills. Graduates with a computing background may also find that their development, post-university, is not formally recorded or recognised.

The trend across industry is for formal qualifications that demonstrate employees' competence. Companies use this information to prove their capabilities when bidding for contracts. In an increasingly litigious environment, staff qualifications could also be needed as evidence that a contract was handled with "due care".

Senior figures in the industry worry that there are too many bodies regulating training, and qualifications from each are not adequately recognised by the others. "There are too many curriculum-setting bodies," warns Geoff McMullen, vice president of professional formation at the British Computer Society. "They don't share an idea of what information technology people are, or how they need to train and develop."

Too little is being done to ensure skills are transferable, and that prior learning such as work experience is taken into account when employees seek qualifications.

A further difficulty is that much of the industry's training is product- led. Commercial training companies and colleges run courses or modules in individual software programs or hardware systems. The best of these are accredited by the manufacturer or software house. These courses demonstrate competence, but they are not interchangeable. A Microsoft-trained engineer will be able to show his or her prowess in Microsoft's business software or operating systems. Moving from one field to another means starting from scratch, even though some core skills are similar. Nor do product- specific courses give credits towards a higher qualification, such as a Masters degree.

The problems of a technical training or product-specific background are particularly acute when an individual wants to move into management. Employers are now emphasising broader interpersonal and communications skills as well as specific technical knowledge.

At ICI, Dr Richard Sykes, head of IT, wants skills in what he describes as the "softer" side of computing - helping people make the most of the technology on their desks rather than extensive experience in writing code. He believes the training market has yet to adapt to this demand.

"Training suppliers are technology-dominated," he explains. "They help technical people become expert in technology. Technical people also need skills in the softer, more behavioural side."

Within ICI, computer staff are being trained so that they approach their work along consultancy lines. Dr Sykes believes this is a better way to give users knowledge, but it means IT staff need to acquire business skills.

In an industry where staff move frequently, building management and personal skills is not always easy. Universities can provide assistance, but the conventional honours degree or postgraduate course is not ideal for people in work. Contract staff, for example, are less likely than full-time employees to have time off for day-release courses, or help with fees.

"Our industry is very volatile," agrees Colin Theaker, head of research at the University of Staffordshire's school of computing, and chair of the BCS's examining board. "People are likely to be flitting from company to company and firms are not prepared to invest in them."

Professor Theaker believes academia has a duty to support standards. Staffordshire, for example, organises courses for large companies and organisations, such as the Civil Service College.

It has also linked with a commercial training provider, Learning Tree, so that students can combine technical courses with the university's own course modules to progress toward Staffordshire's MSc qualification.

This is increasingly the Government's view, too. It has commissioned the Information Technology Industrial Training Organisation (Itito) to review computing's training problems, with a view to creating better national standards. This is especially important now that individuals are being asked to contribute more themselves to training costs.

Gordon Ewan, chief executive of Itito, believes the industry needs to add more professional and personal development to its training. His organisation is working with companies such as Microsoft to bring product-specific training into the fold. "This is to overcome distinctions between proprietary and national standards," he explains.

"Up to now, people in IT have not bothered too much with qualifications, but individuals are starting to put sensible money into career development. Some companies say there is money available, but you have to find your own time."

Individuals should ensure any courses they take are as widely recognised as possible, and meet present and future needs. Bodies such as the IPDM or BCS operate professional development programmes, and can offer advice to member.

"People need to understand where they are in the sector," says Geoff McMullen at the BCS. "You need to have an idea of what your future employment options are, and at what level you exist. You then map out where you want to go."

Advice on training is available from Itito on 0171- 580 6677.