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Partner Perks: Seeking Solutions for the Skills Shortage

A shortage of skilled employees in the labor pool is one of the most common industry complaints Microsoft hears from its partners in Partner Advisory Councils and at other forums.

The company's currently breaking wave of new product launches from Windows Vista to Windows Longhorn is only going to exacerbate that problem, as people who were trained on the older generation of products find themselves unfamiliar with the new code.

Skills Investment
Microsoft's got a formal name for its effort to combat the skills shortage problems: Partner Skills Plus. Announced in May 2006, the program consists of a $30 million investment to increase the number of skilled IT professionals worldwide available for partner organizations, with spending focused on curriculum development and discounts on both certification exams and training.

Microsoft began serious spending out of the Partner Skills Plus budget in November with the first phase aimed at improving skills around current generation products. The company is ramping up to launch a second phase, details of which are still mostly under wraps, in the first half of this year.

Don Nelson, worldwide general manager of partner sales and readiness, says Microsoft officials want to make it easier, faster and cheaper for partners to get certified on the company's technologies. "That's better for them, better for the customers and better for us," Nelson says. A corollary is that training helps with employee retention, Nelson says: "When owners invest in certifying their people, people tend to be more loyal to the organization."

Nelson acknowledges that certifications aren't a perfect way to measure knowledge transfer, but, he adds: "It's the best way that we have. It's a good measure of their abilities to take skills into the marketplace."

Phase I Discounts
Microsoft's Phase I program focused training around SQL Server 2005, BizTalk Server 2006, Visual Studio 2005, Live Communications Server, Windows Mobile and Microsoft Dynamics. It involved discounts of 25 percent to 30 percent off exams, depending on a partner's enrollment level in the Microsoft Partner Program. The program also included vouchers for practice tests.

Nelson says Microsoft's Phase II programs will be more creative and interesting to partners than the vouchers and discounts of Phase I. And he says Microsoft will continue fine-tuning the program and investing in it.

Partner Skills Plus Phase I

The first phase of Microsoft's Partner Skills Plus program of incentives to help partner organizations get their employees trained is in full swing and runs through June 30.
Offers and incentives include:

Technology Specialist and Professional Series Exam Savings:

  • Registered Members: 25% off (5 voucher cap)
  • Certified Partners: 25% off (25 voucher cap)
  • Gold Certified Partners: 30% off (100 voucher cap)

Microsoft Dynamics Exam Savings:

  • Registered Members: 25% off (5 voucher cap)
  • Certified Partners: 25% off (25 voucher cap)
  • Gold Certified Partners: 30% off (100 voucher cap)

Practice Tests:

  • Registered Members: 5 voucher cap
  • Certified Partners: 25 voucher cap
  • Gold Certified Partners: 100 voucher cap

Products covered: SQL Server 2005, BizTalk Server 2006, Visual Studio 2005, Live Communications Server, Windows Mobile and Microsoft Dynamics

Source: Microsoft


"It's not a quick-fix thing," Nelson says. "It's not something that if we run a program for one quarter, we'll have it solved. This is going to be a serious ongoing effort over a number of years."

Meanwhile, Microsoft partners are becoming a primary constituent of, and even a driving force behind, Microsoft's broader IT certification programs. Nelson says that about 40 percent of all certifications in the last year have been earned by Microsoft partner company employees. Nelson expects the Partner Skills Plus investment to increase the partner component of overall certifications to around 50 percent.

Scott Bekker contributed to this report.

About the Author

Anne Stuart, the former executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner, is a business technology freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.

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