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Buyer beware

All too many eager souls who’ve tried to expand their horizons via IT training have ended up betrayed. And broke.

We’re conditioned from an early age to trust our educators; for many of us, a kindergarten teacher was our first surrogate parent. But all too many eager souls who’ve tried to expand their horizons via IT training have ended up betrayed–and broke.

In the wake of the tech downturn, IT training schools have closed at an alarming rate. According to a 2003 survey by the National Association of State Administrators and Supervisors of Private Schools, some states lost upwards of half of their private computer schools–and more distressing, almost none gave advance notice to their students before closing.

To add injury to insult, it’s seldom that a boarded-up school takes the trouble to provide refunds to its students–or often, to pay its instructors and staff. Jonathan Asbury, a software developer currently working for Schwan’s Enterprises in Marshall, Minn., has seen training debacles as a student and an administrator. In the late ’90s he was hired to run Bloomington, Minn.-based training company MindLeap Inc., and steered the company toward revenue growth in seven consecutive months.

Nonetheless, Asbury ended up suing MindLeap after he claimed the company owed him $35,000 in back salary. A district court awarded Asbury $98,000, but he never saw a penny of it–by the time the court ruled in his favor, MindLeap had declared bankruptcy, protecting it from its creditors.

Stories like Asbury’s–not to mention those of students who have watched $5,000 in student loans dry up with nothing to show for it–have become all too commonplace. The simple lesson is that iffy companies are everywhere, so caveat emptor. But there are lots of ways to be proactive in your pursuit of one of the many great computer schools out there, and you should avoid letting the bad ones put a black eye on the hundreds of reputable providers.

So how does one weed out the bad apples? It takes work, but the effort could save you thousands of dollars and a lot of heartache.

Do your homework

It’s easy to presume that just because a training provider has weathered the IT storm of recent years, it must be because the strong survive. Maybe, maybe not, according to William Vanderbilt, director of Technology Learning Group for IT trade group CompTIA.

“One of the good responses to the downturn of the IT training industry over the past few years was a weeding out of the less than reputable training organizations,” he says. “For the most part, the survivors to that downturn are the ones in business for the long haul with years of reputation.”

So before you even sign on with a training provider, make sure that your first homework assignment involves some preliminary research:

— Find out whatever you can about the school you’re considering. If you have no problem Googling a blind date, you should be savvy enough to see what shows up about a school on the Internet. Web bulletin boards are full of rantings from students unhappy with their IT training experience, for reasons ranging from outright fraud to simple frustration that their certification hasn’t amounted to a job yet.

— Take your investigation a step further if you have any doubts. Contact your district attorney, the Federal Trade Commission, or Better Business Bureau and see if they’ve gotten any complaints about the trainer. Many states–including Maryland, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Texas–have a private school bonding requirement that forces new schools to put up a fee guaranteeing its financial solvency for an initial period of operations. Find out whether your state has such safeguards in place.

— Make sure the school is licensed or accredited. Some training centers are licensed through the state’s board of education, while others are licensed through other, independent boards. Ask someone from the training center for details, and follow through with the organization that granted their license. Many of the major certification vendors, including Cisco Systems and Microsoft, offer their seal of approval for training providers.

— Try to get independent verification of anything you find out. A crooked trainer has no incentive to tell you the truth; a reputable one should have nothing to hide. Former students and their employers should be able to offer an objective assessment of the trainer, and a good one will be happy to provide references.

One good source for determining a trainer’s credentials is CompTIA’s Learning Alliance, a searchable site designed to validate the quality of a training center based on both classroom elements and such external elements as customer service. Others include Online College Info and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.

— Get the goods on your instructor, specifically his background in the field he’s teaching. Did he work in the field in question, or just study it? Former students should be all too happy to discuss the teacher’s qualifications and quirks.

— Check out the facility first-hand, and sit in on a class if possible. Your gut feeling as you walk through should tell you a lot. How up-to-date are its materials, equipment, and facilities? Are the classrooms well-maintained? In a case like this, a book often can be judged by the cover.

— Avoid providers that ask for advance payment in full for a lengthy, multiple-course program. The more money you pay up front, the harder it is to get it back if things go sour.

— Get details about the class you’re interested in. How much hands-on time will there be, as opposed to book and lecture study? What about the proper tools and equipment? If it’s a networking class, for instance, will there be network gear on site to tinker with?

— Find out and verify (if possible) the school’s placement rate. If it’s any good, they should be happy to share it with you. Also, says Asbury, find out what percentage of their students have gotten placed in a job that matches up with their certification. “It’s easy for a school that has a networking curriculum to say that a great percentage of their students walked out the door with jobs,” he says, “but they might not tell you that only 2 percent of them were networking jobs.”

— Ask what the trainer promises, if anything. Some providers guarantee a certification and offer students the option to re-take the class for free if you fail a certification test the first time.

Live and learn

If a training provider is crooked, it’s not likely that you will be its first victim–and that means the bad ones have left behind muddy tracks in the form of consumer complaints, lawsuits, trouble with creditors, or negative media coverage. But the best weapon of all against getting taken is good old instinct.

“The age-old saying still applies,” says Rory Fisher, vice president of Arlington, Va.-based training provider KEI Pearson. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

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