Four years ago, Sphinx Information Technologies was struggling to find skilled information and communications technology (ICT) workers. Unable to recruit the right candidates or attain temporary work permits, the Calgary-based company opened an office in Egypt, hiring developers and IT support there that specialized in the oil industry.
While there is labour available in Canada, it’s not suitable, said Ibrahim Hamouda, president and CEO of Sphinx, which has five employees in Calgary and 13 in Cairo.
“There are graduates but our business needs high skills and not only a graduate… who thinks they know everything,” he said. “You get them to work and you find they really don’t know anything and are not willing to learn.”
Once an “attitude-burdened” graduate herself, Lynda Leonard, senior vice-president of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), said these kinds of laments have to be taken with a grain of salt.
“(Younger people) have tremendous things to teach us and it’s their ambitions that are going to fundamentally drive this view that we anticipate, drive us toward a more rounded ICT professional.”
But Hamouda’s kind of troubles are only expected to become more commonplace. Canadian employers will need to hire about 106,000 ICT workers — an average of 17,700 people per year — between 2011 and 2016, and they will experience systemic shortages when recruiting for jobs that require five or more years’ experience, according to a report by the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), in partnership with ITAC.
“The potential skills and labour shortage crisis has been identified as one of the most defining issues facing the ICT sector,” said Bernard Courtois, president and CEO of ITAC. Global job mobility, technological change, demographics, declining enrolments and shifting investment patterns have combined to create a pending shortfall, he said.
The new job market for ICT has radically changed, said the report, Outlook for Human Resources in the LCT Labour Market, 2011-2016, which recommends several approaches to combating the problem.
The demand for “techies” started growing in the 1990s but this most recent crisis came into focus about five years ago when the change in work for the ICT sector in Canada was identified, said Paul Swinwood, president and CEO of ICTC. While there’s still demand for IT people at a certain level, there’s also a significant demand for professionals with leading-edge skills or people who know both IT and a particular domain, such as health care or marketing.
“Coming out of the recession we’ve been in, we’re just now starting to see the major mismatch,” he said.
There has been a dramatic uptake in the demand for business analytics and a drop in demand for classic computing skills, which have become just one part of the skill set, said Leonard.
But there’s no school that can teach that kind of specialization and employers are looking for people with experience, said Swinwood.
“We’re also seeing industry demanding the perfect fit,” he said. “So what we’re working on is colleges and universities coming close (and) industry being more open to taking someone who’s close and then getting them the extras that they need to actually do the job.”
There’s also the challenge of declining or flattening enrolment, though students involved in co-op programs have little trouble finding employment because they are exposed to the industry and employers appreciate the opportunity to test out new graduates.
“We’re really pushing for more and more co-op opportunities,” said Swinwood.
To reach younger people, ICTC has facilitated partnerships between school boards and colleges and universities in eight provinces. Representatives from post-secondary schools talk to high school students about the industry and many are going on to IT-related programs, he said.
Internationally educated professionals (IEPs) are another source but many have no Canadian experience and have difficulty securing a job commensurate with their qualifications, unless their English or French language skills are strong, said the report.
ICTC recently started a pilot program in nine countries that assesses candidates before they come to Canada, looking at their cultural, language and business skills. Once they arrive in Canada, the council works with employers to ensure the professionals are provided with skills upgrading while gaining experience.
The program began in British Columbia more than two years ago and is now being tested in Ontario, said Swinwood.
“We’re very, very pleased with how that’s working out,” he said, citing the collaboration among industry, immigration groups, government and the council. “We’re seeing some amazing success with this.”
Another potential area for growth is female candidates, as they make up one-quarter of all ICT employees, said the report. While that’s not terrible, it’s been stuck there for 10 years, said Leonard.
“We definitely believe commitment from employers to address this fundamental oversight in our talent planning is something that’s long overdue,” she said.
Steps for improvement
5 levers for change
To address labour market shortages in the ICT sector, there are five levers for change:
• Maintain and grow enrolment in ICT-related post-secondary programs.
• Integrate internationally educated professionals.
• Shift post-secondary education to integrated, cross-discipline programs with practicum components and professional development opportunities.
• Have employers invest in “nearly qualified” candidates and make professional development accessible, flexible and focused on necessary skills.
• Improve diversity and inclusion of under-represented groups in the ICT industry.
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