Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Now that’s an idiom I’ve not experienced in a long time. Until I did. Twice in the past three months, in fact. I guess I was due. Hey, we all need a little humbling every now and again.
The first recalibration of my self-importance came on April 17, less than twenty-four hours after the completion of the work placement portion of a retraining program I’d been part of since October. The ten-week practicum had ended on a high note that Friday afternoon leaving me with a giddy afterglow. By Saturday, evidence of my participation had been scrubbed from existence.
Not by my employer, by the school. My access to Microsoft Teams, the very heart of our remote learning for the previous twenty-six weeks, evaporated and with it all archived interactions with my classmates and instructors. No heads up or warning. Just … “poof” … gone. Look out for the door!
I was reminded again this past Friday when the period referred to as “90 Days Job Search & Follow Up” on my “Cohort 6 Pathway” itinerary came to a close with little more than crickets by way of communication from the college.
During the entirety of this “follow up” period, I received only a single email from the school. In mid-May, a short inquiry from the program administrator described as “post-training Ministry reporting” asked if I’d found a job yet and whether I was using any of the skills we’d been taught in class on that job. I answered “no” to the first question and deemed the latter “not applicable.”
For a Business Analytics retraining program whose very raison d’être is “data,” the irony in collecting only a single data point for each participant one month after completion of the program is worthy of a snicker. That this is how my retraining experience ended, though, is far from a surprise. Disappointing, sure, but my contempt towards the entire program has been a titan arum blossom for months.
Billed as the Tech Skills Initiative, funded by the Feds but overseen by the province, and marketed as a means for oil industry professionals to transition into the flourishing technology sector, the program seemed like a great opportunity to reinvent myself.
My fatal unemployment wound was self-inflicted but having finally accepted the bloody writing on the oil patch walls, I submitted my application as a Hail Mary. I had little expectation of being accepted and I’m still not entirely sure why I was chosen. Nonetheless, despite my apprehension at returning to school after so many years, I took the plunge hoping this would mark a turning point in my work life.
I was one of eighteen retrainees in cohort six, a diverse group varying in gender, ethnicity, and professional background and ranging in age from mid-twenties to why-are-you-bothering-to-do-this. Most of us were castoffs from the struggling oil industry, but not all.
In time, three would quit; two early on, one midway through. Others wanted to quit but were convinced to finish. The thought crossed my mind more than once but with two impressionable kids at home, I didn’t want to demonstrate desertion as a viable solution to struggle.
The program consisted of three parts: sixteen weeks of classwork (including a group industry project), ten weeks of practicum, and the rather vague ninety days of “Job Search & Follow Up.” That’s a condensed schedule to be sure and in hindsight believing such a rapid turnaround could feasibly transform skilled labourers in one discipline into skilled labourers in an entirely different discipline is comically optimistic. The implication such a transition would be horizontal is absurd.
Make no mistake, these programs are retraining experienced professionals to be entry level grunts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but let’s be honest about it. Folks like me aren’t doing something new, we’re starting over. That can be a shocking change for people already reeling from the double gut punch of being laid off and being unable to find alternative employment. Oh, and that raved about worker shortage in the tech industry? It’s not a shortage in newbies, I assure you.
Furthermore, those “sixteen weeks” of classwork, the core of the retraining, is also misleading. 2 of those weeks were Orientation and Career Prep weeks, 3 weeks were for “self-study”, and 2 weeks were for a self-taught online Excel course. Of the total 16 weeks designated for learning new skills, only 9 involved actual instructor-led teaching.
I won’t quibble over orientation. Forced revelation of personal information isn’t in my comfort zone, but I understand the purpose. 18 strangers tossed into class together need some help getting to know each other. Even more so when everything is being done remotely because of a pandemic.
Career prep, on the other hand, isn’t all that helpful. Which is not to say that advice isn’t valuable. The job market continually evolves and I’d be foolish to assert that I’m in no need of a refresher on current resume techniques and online branding (just writing that phrase was unthinkable the last time I sought employment).
But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the primary reason I cannot find employment is skill deficiency. My skills are dated, if not entirely obsolete. I need new ones; relevant ones; in-demand ones. I do not need two weeks of childish get-to-know-me games, redundant personality assessments, confusing resume critiques, and eye-rolling LinkedIn profile tweaks (I was a geologist, not a geological data analyst!).
That an entire week of the program was saved for “Work Experience Preparation” that ultimately consisted of thirty minutes of resume review, another twenty minutes of LinkedIn/Github profile critique, and a brief “how to do an interview” presentation culminating in 4 ten-minute interviews for practicum positions is an embarrassment. I got more value from looking over my wife’s shoulder during her career counselling after she got laid off from her oil patch job two years ago.
I suppose this would have been somewhat more tolerable had the actual skill development portion of the program not been equally frustrating and disappointing. Dare I say time-wasting?
Consider the two-week Excel course which I must admit was an eye-opener as to my shockingly rusty spreadsheet skills. Conducted online, it was entirely a self-learning endeavour with our college instructor present for what amounted to IT help. And need that help we did. For incomprehensible reasons, we were learning the Excel 2016 curriculum while our college student status granted us Microsoft Office 365 accounts complete with free access to Excel 2019.
As a result, some tasks in our lessons and certification tests were no longer performed in Excel 2019 the same way they were in Excel 2016. The online algo that graded our work (based on keystrokes and cell contents) would therefore mark some of our answers as wrong, regardless of their accuracy, simply because the methodology in 2019 had changed from 2016.
As frustrating as this quirk was, it became infuriating when our program neared completion and we were apprised of additional certifications we could complete during our practicums, should we choose to do so. One of those additional certifications? Excel 2019.
Other head scratchers quickly followed. The three remaining courses in the curriculum were Microsoft SQL Server, IBM Predictive Analytics Modeler (IBM SPSS), and IBM Business Intelligence Analytics (IBM COGNOS). Time allotted these three core courses was 3 weeks, 3 weeks, and 4 weeks respectively. The latter two courses also each had a 1 week “essentials” introductory course prepared by our instructor.
Those two “essentials” weeks were the only genuine teaching provided by our instructor. The Microsoft and IBM courses, developed by the companies themselves, came with prepared workbooks, teaching manuals, exercises, and quizzes. As such “teaching” was little more than script reading.
Granted, the instructor was called upon to answer questions regularly, in part because we had no idea what we were doing, but also because the prepared learning material often had errors or contradictions in it. In several instances, it was outdated entirely compared to the current version of software we were learning on. The question answering was just as unreliable; sometimes puzzling, sometimes outright erroneous.
I’ve been to university. I’ve endured terrible profs and outdated/incorrect/irrelevant course material. I’ve got that t-shirt. It would have been nice if higher education had improved since 1996 rather than perpetuating the tired sitcom community college trope of incompetence.
Even if the course material had been pristine and taught to impeccable standard, the curriculum itself was maddening. If the program’s goal is to retrain a bunch of discarded oil patch engineers and geoscientists to be employable in the exploding field of data/business analysis, and do it very quickly, then teaching them the most versatile and popular skills seems kind of important.
Tech is an ever-moving target in this regard, so it’s borderline impossible for schools to remain at the cutting edge of industry trends. I get that. Trying, though, seems vital.
Half of our course load was dedicated to IBM products, a decision seemingly based on access to pre-developed course material and name recognition. Choosing convenience over relevance is an injustice to everyone attempting to make this mid-career transition.
Simple research quickly reveals the lack of value in learning SPSS and COGNOS over their far more popular, not to mention cheaper, competitors. Search jobs website Indeed for mentions of these software programs and the results are startling.
Just look at the number of jobs mentioning COGNOS compared to Tableau and Power BI on June 14th, 2021. Those latter two are currently the most popular data visualization tools on the market. By far. One or the other, if not both, will be mentioned in every single conversation you’ll ever have regarding business analytics. There simply is no excuse for teaching IBM COGNOS.
Another tool you’ll inevitably hear mentioned in those same conversations is Python. It’s a scripting language that’s seemingly everywhere these days. It even gets mentioned in the rare job postings for the industry we are transitioning away from. And though there are alternatives better loved and better suited to certain niches, the value in learning Python versus not learning any coding language at all, is unquestionable. In fact, during the very first week of lessons our instructor included Python as a key tool we’d be wise to learn … … outside of the program.
It’s not like there wasn’t time. Those 3 weeks of “self-study” could easily have been used for an additional introductory Python course considering how ridiculous the certification tests were that this self-study was meant to prepare for (read that rant here). The mostly wasted week of “Work Experience Preparation” could be revamped to free up much of a fourth week. Or, since Python is popular in data modeling, it could simply have replaced the IBM SPSS material entirely.
There is just no justification for the ineptitude of this course itinerary. Beyond Excel, which was useful despite the foibles in its presentation, and SQL, which was an excellent addition for understanding databases, the curriculum is lazy and inadequate. Worse yet, I think the program administration is fully aware of this fact.
Nor is there justification for including such a poorly implemented group project. That we are even talking about a group project for a bunch of former office workers is laughable. Trust me, we are all well aware of group dynamics in the workplace. Burdening us with yet another exhausting, soul-sucking group work experience is wholly unnecessary.
But devising a project that segregates students into teams to mimic a real-world workplace is unconscionable when that very structure restricts students to learning only the skills required for their specific task. We had 16 weeks to learn an entirely new skillset. The industry project should enable each of us to practice all of those skills.
Instead, one group got some experience manipulating data in Excel. One group got to design and build the entire database in SQL. One group quality checked the work of the other two groups. One student got to write the report in Word. And two others got to roll play management thereby practicing none of their new tech skills whatsoever. I know which of those groups I should have joined because they got far more benefit from this project than I did.
Far more valuable would have been a capstone project that we completed individually or in pairs. One that demanded use of all our new skills by every student rather than the piecemeal exposure to the first two courses of the curriculum we ended up with.
One lucky student did get to build a dashboard in Phase II of the project as their ten-week practicum. Dashboards are what COGNOS creates, so they got an added bit of learning from the industry project the rest of us did not, though it’s deliciously worth noting that that dashboard was built with … Power BI.
Which brings me back to the practicum that I had just finished when the proverbial door threatened to wallop my backside. For a government funded program, I was dismayed at the dearth of work placements available to us. Yes, ten weeks is criminally short, unpaid or otherwise, but for all the chatter about Calgary’s future as a tech hub, the buy-in to retraining by the existing Calgary tech community is distressingly minimal.
Of the five employers offering positions to our cohort, 1 was the continuation of our industry project and we were all given the opportunity to opt out if we wanted to do something different. 1 was a sketchy, single-person outfit based in Virginia that bailed the morning of interviews. 1 was a marketing firm in Southern Ontario. Only 2 were Alberta based; 1 a payday loan company from Edmonton and 1 a fantasy sports startup in Calgary.
I applaud those companies for stepping up, the Virginia one excepted. For the most part, they exceeded my first impression upon reveal. None were perfect, but I think most students would say they gained something tangible from their experience. These companies gave us an opportunity, however short, to apply our nascent skills and gain critical experience in a real-world setting. Thank you to each of them!
But where are the big companies? Where are the household names? Where are the darlings of the Calgary tech community? For that matter, where are the governments? Data analysis is literally everywhere these days and yet the companies/organizations I fully expected to be part of the program’s practicum contingent were nowhere to be found. No Telus. No Shaw. No Symend or Benevity. No Alberta Health Services or City of Calgary or anything with “Canada” attached to it. Not even Suncor or other oil industry behemoths currently embracing the data analysis craze.
I honestly don’t know if this is a reflection on the tech industry or the program administration at the college, but one cannot take a retraining program remotely serious when the very industry players clamouring for skilled employees are this invisible. As a fellow student remarked, “at the very least, you’d think the government would view student practicums as a way to extract a return from their retraining investment.”
Here’s the ultimate rub and, perhaps, egg on my face after all this ranting. When that follow up email arrived in our inboxes in May, five of my fellow students were able to answer “yes”!
All five were deserving. Having witnessed their work ethic and intellect over the course of the school year, I’m not surprised they were the first of the cohort to gain employment. I would like to think their success came in spite of the Tech Skills Initiative not because of it, but perhaps that’s sour grapes on my part. Maybe I am just a crusty, old guy who can’t adapt to the modern workplace.
After all, I did get chastised for using the word “chastise” in conversation with the career counsellor on Teams. And I was reprimanded for calling out what I considered fraudulent job-hunting advice from a guest speaker. It’s quite possible I’m just venting my own frustrations to mask my own failure.
Or maybe a 5 out of 18 success rate is not terribly boast-worthy. It would explain why program administration doesn’t use former student employment statistics to promote the program or boost student buy-in at the start of each cohort. And we never hear anything from either level of government with regards to retraining success. They love announcing such programs but are eerily silent afterwards.
As a student, I’d obviously hoped for better. As a taxpayer, I’m more than a little miffed. In a gig economy world, where careers can be measured in single-digit lengths, and disruptive technologies create and destroy entire industries seemingly at will, retraining can no longer be just a photo-op and sound bite. It is imperative that these programs offer the very best education and opportunities possible.
Instead, we got this mess of a program that seems best suited to keeping only the purveyors of it employed. Displaced workers deserve better. Taxpayers deserve better.