Trouble with assessing IT skills, bad news as demand heats up

Study shows a lack of common understanding and definitions surrounding IT jobs
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/06/2004

The Software Human Resource Council regularly gets calls from recruiters and HR professionals complaining that they can’t find qualified candidates to fill vacant IT positions, said Paul Swinwood, president of the council.

In fact, there are many people willing and able to fill the position, he said. But the recruiters and HR people don’t understand the similarity, and thus transferability, of IT workers’ skills.

The problem is that in a still relatively young — though complex and rapidly changing — industry, too many people are using too many different definitions and terms to describe similar things.

Recruiters get a list of requirements and qualifications and will reject anyone lacking those exact specifications, he said. “If an IT person is doing the interviewing directly, they can usually find someone with the skills to fit.”

The magnitude of the problem was confirmed for Swinwood in a groundbreaking new survey of the IT labour market,

National Survey of Information Technology Occupations

.

More than 35,000 public- and private-sector employees, and more than 25,000 employers participated. It is the largest Canadian IT labour market survey and is expected to be an invaluable source of information on skills, training, recruitment, working conditions and most importantly, said Swinwood, occupational definitions.

“The study confirms that there is a lack of common understanding and definitions of what the IT jobs are,” he said.

The council’s occupation skills model is a list of 25 IT occupations with more than 350 job titles. The massive challenge is communicating that model to all the employers in the country, he said.

It is a fundamental problem in need of immediate redress, because almost every employer in the country has some need for information technology workers. What’s more, every indication is that demand for IT workers will increase considerably in the near future, he said. Without a correction to this IT labour market defect, recruiting will be far more difficult.

If employers have a hard time now, they’ll find it even harder in the future as the demand for IT workers again races ahead of supply, he added.

Bernard Courtois, president of the Information Technology Association of Canada, which partnered with the software council to produce the new study, said the research will be invaluable in ensuring IT labour supply meets demand.

Right now there is cause for concern because there are not enough young people choosing information technology as a profession.

“We hear from colleges and universities that there is under-enrolment in IT,” he said.

Students are turning away from information technology occupations because they are still reacting to the bursting of the technology bubble, he said.

“We are told that even career counsellors and advisors have it wrong in telling (students) that IT is not the place to go.”

Swinwood echoed this concern. Between 30,000 to 40,000 IT jobs are created in Canada each year, said Swinwood. But the universities and colleges are only turning out about 5,000 to 6,000 new graduates.

Frank Price, vice-president of HR for NexInnovations, an IT systems and solutions provider, said that, very recently, the market for technology workers has been changing.

“For the first time in a few years, we are starting to see people stolen away,” he said.

Some people with particularly hot skills sets, like Microsoft XP deployment, have been lured away to competitors offering more money, he said.

It isn’t a major cause for concern, he said. A straightforward review of compensation levels should correct the problem. But nonetheless it is a change in the market they didn’t see coming, he admits. “Sometimes these things catch you by surprise.”

“After the bubble burst, it was an employer’s market for the last several years. I would say we are coming out of that.”

The labour market is changing because the market for IT services is evolving, he said. It is expected that many small and mid-market organizations — those with fewer than 1,000 employees — will have a growing need for IT solutions. Not all of them want, or are able, to do it in-house. “Most of these organizations have an IT department, but the department is often one guy,” he said.

Rather than hire more IT staff to manage technology challenges, organizations will choose instead to contract with companies like NexInnovations, he said.

Swinwood also said the market for IT workers is very different than it was during the dot-com boom when a large number of people worked in technology development firms, he said.

When the bubble burst, the market cooled and for a while there were more qualified workers than jobs to fill. “There has been a tremendous shift in employment in IT,” he said.

Upwards of 2,000 people who left Nortel ended up working for the federal government, he said. That surprises a lot of people, but it shouldn’t. Those skill sets are needed in every sector and increasingly so.

Billions of dollars will be spent in the next few years to develop electronic health information sharing. This should lead to a huge increase in demand for IT workers in the health-care sector, he said. Similar developments are likely in education, he added.

“Organizations like the Royal Bank and Microsoft are interviewing for the same people now,” he said. “The world of IT work is everywhere.”

The goal of the Software Human Resource Council is to make sure all of the employers and employees in that world are speaking the same language — or at least able to communicate, he said. A clear picture of the workforce and employer expectations will be helpful in reaching that point.

“We now have a database about the sector that we can mine to tell us things like how many Aboriginals are working, and how many women and in what fields. We have to get started analyzing this stuff to get a handle on the supply side and the demand side so we can start answering some of these questions.”

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