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BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Trains Entry Level IT Workers Internally

An internal training program has helped BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina create IT professionals that can run its powerful systems.

A training program for entry-level IT professionals started in 1997 at BlueCross Blue Shield of South Carolina (more than 1 million members) to help bridge a gap in qualified workers is still paying dividends for the Columbia, S.C.-based health insurer. "I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I'd be in the education business," relates Stephen K. Wiggins, EVP and CIO at BCBS of South Carolina. "It turns out that I need to be in the education business if I want to be in business."

In 1997, the health insurer -- which wholly owns IT and data services provider Companion Data Services (projected to process 650 million Medicare claims and 150 million TRICARE and private insurance claims by September 2008) -- started an Entry Level Training Program (ELTP) for computer programmers. Since then, the company has developed ELTPs for other areas of IT, including network operations, workstation support and nonhost operations.

Wiggins says that it's difficult for new employees to join the company's IT department and begin work without training. Columbia, S.C.-based training companies Alpha Training and Services (ATS) and Cornelius & Associates teach some of the courses with help from the health plan's internal training staff. For other classes, BCBS of South Carolina collaborates with Midlands Technical College (Columbia, S.C.) and Furman University (Greenville, S.C.). The 12-week application development class is primarily instructor-led, but some fundamental training on issues such as security is delivered through Toolbook, in-house-developed software that integrates with BCBS of South Carolina's internal learning management system, according to the carrier.

In addition to allowing individuals with degrees outside of computer science to enter the IT field, the ELTP classes also serve to supplement the computer science training many entry-level employees received in college. "Information technology as a career has become very fragmented in the education area. There is no holistic approach to data processing anymore," Wiggins contends. "Business IT is automating business processes and moving data and calculations. There seems to have been a loss of a holistic view of what a data processing department or business does."

Currently, 62 percent of BCBS of South Carolina's IT job categories have related entry-level training programs. The flagship programming ELTP has run 16 classes since 1997 with 249 participants; 243 have graduated. "About 70 percent of those folks [who went through the program] still work here," Wiggins says.

In addition to improving participants' understanding of the company's IT systems, Wiggins says the ELTP classes have become increasingly focused on more-general communication skills, as the importance of business-IT interactions becomes more apparent. "It's not only how the hardware and software work, it's also dealing with people, including our customers," he relates. "If you look at the curriculum from the very first class in 1997 and the curriculum today, you'd find that we've incorporated a lot more people skills. That's been the biggest change."

Legacy Learning

Matthew Josefowicz, the Boston-based managing director of Celent's insurance group, says that other insurers have similar undertakings in place. Often such programs are created because recent graduates are not receiving the training necessary to operate the aging legacy systems that are still prevalent within many insurers' IT environments, he notes. "Some insurers' systems are primarily in COBOL and are mainframe-based," Josefowicz explains. "Those are not the skill sets [with which] new computer science graduates are coming out of college."

While that may be true for other insurers that have created internal training programs, BCBS of South Carolina's Wiggins says that his IT group uses a code generator and hasn't written in COBOL since 1984. While entry-level workers do learn about the company's legacy systems in the classes, Wiggins says rapid growth within the IT department spurred the creation of the ELTPs. Currently there are about 1,600 IT workers in Wiggins' department, which represents 80 percent growth since 1998.

"Our issue -- and the reason we set these programs up -- had nothing to do with legacy systems. It had to do with the shortage of IT professionals in the U.S.," Wiggins says. "The only way we could sustain our business growth was to come up with a way to grow IT professionals."

Rapid Retirement

Whether or not legacy systems are the motivation for training classes, almost all insurers are facing a retirement crunch. Older and more experienced workers are retiring in greater numbers and are taking their institutional knowledge with them. Unfortunately, legacy systems are not being sent out to pasture at a similar rate.

"I think it'll get worse before it gets better. It will take a while before all of the aging legacy systems are phased out. It probably won't happen within the next 10 years," Celent's Josefowicz says. "During that time, insurers are going to have to train their own people, find older workers who are willing to stay in the workforce to deal with these systems, or go offshore or to large IT services companies that are able to train people in older technologies."

At BCBS of South Carolina, the IT leadership analyzed the overall mix of its staff and estimated when people might retire. Results from that research indicate that the company will need to replace approximately 40 to 50 people every year, according to the carrier's Wiggins. "Without this program, I think it'd be very difficult to go out and find the right people so we could keep that balance in our staff," he says.

"Because we train them and they're staying to work with us, we're able to make sure there aren't any gaps in the skills," Wiggins explains. "We have data that shows that people who come through the program and stay with us have more complete skill levels than perhaps someone we would hire off the street."

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