Lynne Curry looks at moves to standardise IT qualifications
Sooner or later it had to come: in the rapidly changing world of information technology, the slow business of establishing a national qualification for analyst/programmers is hitching a lift from the superhighway.

Formulating National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) for an industry that changes by the day has been "like pushing a very large stone up a very steep hill", says David Holden, training consultant and head of strategic development for Peritas, the ICL training subsidiary. But now the task has been completed and the go-ahead has been given to set up a "virtual learning environment", aimed particularly at the huge IT freelance army of up to 50,000, whose members rarely receive training in-house during the life of a contract.

Via the Internet - and free - they will be able to submit work for assessment towards one of the four levels of NVQ. Eventually, it is hoped that this "demonstrable level of competence" will become the nationally recognised indicator of expertise, covering skills from basic use to advanced systems development.

The pounds 120,000 distance-training project, partly funded by the Department for Education and Employment, is being steered by the Information Technology Industry Training Organisation (ITITO).

Gordon Ewan, the ITITO's chief executive, despairs at the lack of training for computer operators, freelance or otherwise, who are expected to keep up with the lightning pace of technology. "The uncontrolled use of personal computers is one of the most wasteful of human endeavours," he says.

Just how far training is down the priority list was underlined recently by the first national survey of IT training, conducted among a sample of the country's top 5,000 companies. Only half of the firms were running formal IT training programmes.

Mr Ewan says that people working with systems have been expected to absorb the techniques almost by osmosis, while some of the manuals issued by the hardware and software producers are "as friendly as cornered rats".

Establishing a national qualification, based on proof of competence in 29 specific areas, is aimed at bringing training to the foreground of the industry and at coming up with a common set of skills that employers and operators both recognise.

"There aren't many sectors where the price halves and the performance doubles every two years," Mr Ewan points out. IT has moved so fast that it has never had a chance to work out an objective hierarchy based on competence, and has relied on clever CVs. It has also gained a reputation for being "young, macho and tetchy", which has led to age prejudice.

The UK IT industry has developed so far exactly on the same lines as the United States, embracing outsourcing, facilities management and short- term contracts. In the US, freelancers have had to get accustomed to "owning" their own careers - which includes paying towards their own training.

Among the pilots of the British virtual learning scheme are the leading IT training bodies, including IBM and ICL. "Virtual learning fits clearly with the way the whole marketplace is developing," says Mr Holden, whose organisation has a pounds 26m turnover from 90,000 students a year. "At Peritas, we already have two on-line learning services up and running."

Contractors have been among the participants on these courses. The ITITO's pilot project will give training sources but not online training. Few home computers have modems that will transmit at 28,000 baud, which is what is needed to download graphics in a reasonable time.

Mr Holden says the whole industry should be concerned that its people are competent: "We believe it is in the interests of the IT industry in general to seek quality of learning, quality of qualifications and to achieve high levels of common standards in both delivery and implementation of training projects. It is also in the interests of users of information technology and of all business in the UK that these standards are at the highest possible level."