ITI’s hard lesson

Today ITI Education Corp. held a school assembly its students will never forget.

The keynote speakers were not its staff of technology instructors but representatives from Ernst & Young Inc., the court-appointed receivers who are handling the sale and management of the troubled training company. ITI officially threw in the towel Thursday, after months of discussions with potential investors and the government of Nova Scotia about possible financing arrangements failed to bear any fruit.

There is something really ugly about a school system, even a private one, shutting its doors. Of course, Ernst & Young said in a public statement today it would try its best to work with the various provincial authorities to keep classes going while it searches for a potential buyer. But already the disruptive effects of the situation are being felt. Someone I work with was contacted by an ITI student who said an exam he’d had scheduled for today had been pushed back until next week; he is nowhere near the end of his program. This is nothing like those blissful Snow Days in elementary school or high school, where a postponed education meant more time to party. By this point, the people at ITI have already spent several years in the post-secondary system. When they come to schools like ITI, these people have a specific career goal in mind, and usually a specific roadmap of how long they will take to get there.

You can almost feel the distaste and embarrassment in the story which ran in today’s Toronto Star (without a byline) which reported an expected $25 million write-off its parent company Torstar would suffer in its forthcoming third-quarter results from $3 million it gave in financial support to ITI. As investments go, this must have seemed like a pretty good bet. Given what everyone has been saying for years about the skills shortage in Canada and the United States, it must not have seemed possible that the economic downturn in IT could reach this far.

ITI must have been surprised too. About two weeks ago the company said it would shut down its money-losing U.S. schools in what its financial statement called “a search for value over growth.” One would have thought the company had been on that particular quest from the very beginning.

Of course, many of these training companies have spent so much time marketing themselves through greed campaigns that it no doubt influences their business development process. By “greed campaign,” I mean ITI’s well-known radio ads in which downtrodden, jobless university graduates are told by their programmer friends that they too could enter the IT field, as long as they had a degree. “Even an English degree?” they would ask. Yes, even an completely useless English degree! Another school right now is papering the subways of Toronto with the face of one of its most successful students. He’s a 28-year-old who graduated with a degree in human geography (what a waste of time THAT was!) and after completing some tech schooling has now become his own boss as a software developer. There’s even a “before” and “after” statement: before he was living with his parents in Guelph; now he’s living the high life in Vancouver — with his own beach house!

It sure does make the whole industry seem pretty tempting. That’s what you do in a marketing campaign: create an image of a world to which everyone wants to belong. But is this really the best way of attracting the most talented, most committed students to the field? Almost nowhere have I seen an IT school, least of all ITI, convey any sense of what enjoyment there is in the IT industry. Maybe it’s hard to articulate, but let me try: Study hard, and one day you may get to solve complex technology problems that can improve the working lives of hundreds of individuals in dynamic organizations.

We need our schools to survive so that we can breed the next generation of IT managers. To do that, the schools need to stop treating this career like a get-rich-quick scheme and keep the search for value as their first unit of study.

sschick@plesman.com

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