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Dominique Wilkins, Cisco Meraki network support engineer

Closing the IT skills gap with Cisco Networking Academy

Lauren Horwitz

by Lauren Horwitz

Managing Editor, Cisco.com

Cisco’s entry-level technology training program enables those wanting a career in IT to develop hands-on networking skills—the most compelling IT skills for employers.

When you ask Dominique Wilkins a question, he trains his gaze directly at you. He often pauses, smiles, then shifts his body a bit before responding.

It’s clear he’s listening—and answering—carefully.

Wilkins is a network support engineer at Cisco Meraki, Cisco’s cloud-based wireless LAN and switching portfolio. His demeanor reflects his day-to-day work on the technical assistance support team, calmly helping customers who may be frustrated or bewildered by a networking issue.

“Maybe it’s a bad configuration and they need to be educated on the best practice, or maybe they have a problem in the network and need guidance on how to isolate it,” Wilkins said.

Working in customer support requires patience and superior listening skills—not to mention technical chops. Wilkins has a calm-under-fire disposition and a solid technical foundation that enables him to handle the problems that come his way.

“Our big focus is really defining the issue and asking the right questions,” Wilkins said.

The importance of hands-on training: Filling the IT skills gap

With a degree from East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C., where he concentrated in information and computer technology, Wilkins gravitates toward problem solving. But some of these foundational skills were formed at Networking Academy, a Cisco educational program, delivered in partnership with educational institutions around the world. Networking Academy trains people for the next wave of IT skills that workforce experts predict will be critical in the coming years.

"Our big focus is really defining the issue and asking the right questions."

Dominique Wilkins, Cisco Meraki network support engineer

The five components of effective career training, McKinsey & Co

Since 1997, nearly 8 million students have taken Networking Academy classes, giving them traditional in-classroom training and hands-on lab-oriented learning experiences that make them attractive candidates for employers.

Programs like Cisco Networking Academy also address that bugbear known as the “IT skills gap,” the lack of qualified candidates available to fill open jobs. This gap has caused consternation among employers, looking for hard-to-find skills in disciplines such as network programming, cybersecurity, data analytics and artificial intelligence.

According to the CompTIA report “Assessing the skills gap,” nearly 60% of large enterprises believe this IT skills gap will only grow. And nearly 40% of American employers say they cannot find people with the skills they need, according to the McKinsey & Co. report “Closing the skills gap.” Further, according to CompTIA, nearly 60% of employers complain that applicants lack preparation, with this skills gap detracting from enterprise through a lack of worker productivity (52%), poor customer service (38%), and loss of sales (33%).

Cisco Networking Academy takes aim at this IT skills gap through practical, hands-on training.

“One of the differentiators for Networking Academy is the hands-on lab experience that students get,” said Kathy Mulvany, vice president of corporate affairs at Cisco. “We have found that our students are able to hit the ground running.”

"One of the differentiators for Networking Academy is the hands-on lab experience that students get."

Kathy Mulvany, vice president of corporate affairs, Cisco

Since 2005, 1.6 million students have gotten a new job after completing Networking Academy, and the program educates roughly 1.3 million students a year.

Employers view the Networking Academy as a Good Housekeeping Seal, of sorts, because the curriculum aligns with certification like Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), and students gain hands-on networking experience before they start their first job.

“I have a higher level of confidence with some of the folks coming through Networking Academy because they have rolled up their sleeves and [worked with] the technology,” said Maureen McDermott, director of strategic solutions and services capability at CDW, a Cisco partner and integrator. McDermott runs the Associate Consulting Engineer (ACE) program, CDW’s entry-level networking consulting role.

Companies such as CDW now work closely with Cisco to get insight into the pipeline of Networking Academy graduates. In 2017, CDW’s ACE program made 30% of its hires from Networking Academy.

Applying networking skills

Like others in the program, Wilkins had a mentor guiding him toward the Cisco educational track. Wilkins credits Linda O’Neill—his Networking Academy instructor at Northern Nash High School in Rocky Mountain, N.C.—with jump-starting his career in networking.

“Ms. O’Neill was very encouraging, talking to us about that after–high school career experience,” Wilkins recalled. “She planted the seed.”

On a parent-teacher night, O’Neill discussed how students who pursued a technology career could advance to certain salary levels if they continued their education and worked toward networking certifications. Wilkins’ mom, a nurse, was impressed.

Wilkins, too, was enthusiastic and saw it as a way to make his college education have immediate payback. Networking Academy, as his teacher described it, provided a means to get hands-on networking experience while in community college, then land a job soon after.

Wilkins took Networking Academy courses in high school, then did a Cisco CALO co-op (a work study program) in college, before ultimately landing his customer support role at Meraki.

“Without Networking Academy and my co-op, I would have struggled to take in the course material,” Wilkins said. “It’s really the presentation—there is so much information to take in—that helps demystify the content. I can apply the learning to a real-life setting. It’s almost like following the yellow-brick road, with perfect stones laid out for you,” he said.

Mike Surikov, now a consulting engineer at CDW, agreed. Surikov joined UZSCINET, the Cisco Networking Academy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 2010. Surikov viewed the program as a way to make his textbook learning stick and “climb the ladder,” as he put it.

Much of the coursework for CCNA, Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) and similar networking certifications involves hundreds of pages of material that is difficult to follow without hands-on training.

“It’s a great way to advance your career instead of learning everything yourself, which can take a long time,” Surikov said.

Surikov also believed the industry certifications would translate globally—whether he worked in Uzbekistan or the U.S., where he relocated to in 2012. “You go through the training and get a certification that is internationally accepted.”

Experts who are close observers of workforce development issues agree that practical, lab-like experience is what makes these graduates stand out in a sea of entry-level applicants.

"It’s a great way to advance your career instead of learning everything yourself."

Mike Surikov, consulting engineer, CDW

“Companies are looking for people with experience in trying to fill these IT positions,” said Ed Tittel, a networking writer and consultant. Programs like Networking Academy allow “people to claim the real hands-on, in-the-trenches direct exposure to the problem-solving in the job.”

Tittel noted that other vendors and third parties offer training programs. But Cisco Networking Academy may offer more return on investment.

“The program I hear most about . . .with the biggest perceived value and career-boosting potential is the Networking Academy,” Tittel said. ”The hands-on component gives [students] the most marketable set of skills and abilities when they get done with the program.”

One project that brought Surikov’s Networking Academy training full circle was a hospital network migration that required late nights and mission-critical work.

“Downtime for certain hospital equipment is not tolerable, so we had to do the cutovers from the live network,” Surikov recalled. In hospital environments, heart monitors and other essential equipment have to be online. X-ray machines need to be working. “So we had to plan ahead of time, preconfigure and pre-run cables, then do the cutover really fast during the nighttime,” Surikov said. 

Building networking skills for the future

As employers note, the workforce landscape is changing at a breakneck pace. “If you’re an engineer, you have to run just to stay in place as regards to technical knowledge,” said CDW’s McDermott.

"I have a higher level of confidence with the folks coming through Networking Academy."

Maureen McDermott, director of strategic solutions and services capability, CDW

Cisco’s Mulvany noted that the program curriculum has had to evolve to stay current. “When Networking Academy began, it was about CCNA,” Mulvany said. “Since then, we’ve had to branch out because technology is evolving so quickly,” she said.

While the program originally centered on core routing and switching, today’s coursework encompasses a range of skills, including Internet of Things-connected devices, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity skills. The goal is to keep students primed for the needs of the digital workforce as it evolves.

That ideal candidate, Mulvany said, possesses a broad range of skills. “You have to have programming skills: We teach Python, C++ and Linux as well as cybersecurity skills. We’re trying to make sure students have a well-rounded understanding of technology. That will make them that much more relevant,” she said. At the same time it can take schools time to catch up and be able incorporate new courses for students.

Students, too, want to continue their path of learning, but need to make the time investment.

Surikov and Wilkins both said that continued learning is part of their career track now, and Surkov has his sights on the Cisco Certified Internetwork Engineer (CCIE) Data Center certification, while Wilkins is considering wireless certification.

Keeping a customer-centric focus

While Networking Academy provides graduates with the technical fundamentals, employers and graduates alike confirm the curriculum also helps students stay focused on the true end game: customer satisfaction. But moving beyond traditional IT objectives requires “soft skills,” such as communication and emotional intelligence.

“It’s ultimately about our customers’ customers’ experience,” said CDW’s Maureen McDermott. “It’s not just making sure the blinking lights are turned on and going in the right order but that the customer is able to understand how this is helping them achieve their goals.”

And for Wilkins, his attention is always ultimately on the customer. Getting into a customer's shoes is critical.

“It always helps to think from the customer’s perspective,” Wilkins emphasized. “If they are frustrated, I use a calm tone of voice and focus on the problem at hand. We tell them, ‘We might need some additional data, but we’ll get to the bottom of this.’”

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Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”