Feast or famine (Guest commentary)

There’s a better way to deal with the boom-and-bust cycle for high-tech workers
By Gary Davis
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/28/2006

Human resource professionals and recruiters in Ottawa’s high-tech sector have gone from lurking in parking lots with offers of pool tables and holiday trips to drowning in a sea of qualified resumés for every single position posted.

That’s the pre- and post-technology boom labour picture in the nation’s capital. And it’s hardly a model of efficient human resource planning. While HR might be enjoying a reprieve from aggressive recruiting tactics in this labour pool, it’s likely to be short-lived with a much-talked-about labour shortage looming.

Recognizing this, some Ottawa businesses, not to mention industry leaders, economic development agencies and workers themselves, are calling for a co-ordinated, industry-wide approach to skills development that is sustainable over the long haul.

It’s going to involve a minor reinvention of the wheel, because the current models of workforce development simply aren’t applicable to the technology sector. They can’t match the hectic pace of change in the industry, one that has the unique characteristic of employing a workforce that is highly educated with the ability to keep pace with technology that is constantly and rapidly evolving. After all, it is generally accepted that a technology, on average, will remain current for between 27 and 36 months before it is superseded by new developments.

That leads to some pretty unique and challenging situations. Engineers, designers and product developers working on “newly obsolete” technologies are stars today and has-beens tomorrow. But many of these “newly irrelevant” workers have PhDs, years of experience in the most advanced fields and a true love for the science and exploration that is the basis of the industry. As a result, some top minds are now on the outside looking in, while at the same time employers are searching for new talent that can pull the newest technologies into the marketplace with lightning speed.

To tackle the problem facing Ottawa’s high-tech sector, some basic questions need to be asked and answered: Can anyone determine what the upcoming needs of the sector are? Can a workforce development strategy be devised that will be adaptable to the new, rapidly changing demands and realities of this industry? Can the various partners that play central roles in this sector collaborate to create and implement a solution?

Since necessity is the mother of invention, hopefully the answer is yes to all of these questions. But it won’t be easy. Any attempt to tackle the problem will require the creation of new partnerships and collaboration within an industry where competition and confidentiality are core values.

To do this, the industry needs to see that participation is in its own best long-term interest. To that end, the Ottawa Talent Initiative (OTI) — a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources to employers and high-tech workers to help create a sustainable tech industry in Ottawa — is using the motto of “putting business first” as a guiding principle for what needs to be delivered and is currently developing a comprehensive plan to tackle this issue. The OTI’s proposed recommendations include:

•Developing a reality-based HR strategy:

An experienced team of HR professionals should work with each of the 1,800 high-tech firms in Ottawa that do not have fully staffed HR departments to determine present and future labour needs. Firms that do have an HR capacity will participate through adding their own needs. The resulting outcome of this process will leave each firm with a professionally developed reality-based HR strategy.

•Building a database:

Individual company-based plans should be analyzed and collated into a database from which an overall labour force development strategy for the entire sector can be designed.

•Getting the word out:

A community-wide publicity campaign should be launched informing both current and prospective employees as to what careers and specialties will be in demand and provide solid intelligence as to where the sector is going.

•Getting educators on-board:

Trainers and educators should be incorporated into this process at its early stages so they can hear first-hand what the industry is looking for and determine what changes can be expected in both the short and medium terms. This will allow educational institutions to develop mechanisms that can react more quickly to the frequent and rapid fluctuations in the industry.

•Using government as a catalyst:

Government departments concerned with both industrial policy and workforce development need to be partners in the early stages in order to address regulatory issues and develop new policies and programs that can react to the specific needs of the high-tech sector.

Building a new workforce model that reflects today’s circumstances in Ottawa’s high-tech industry may not be an easy task, but it is crucial to give rise to a tech community that is healthy, innovative and, most of all, sustainable. The overall responsibility for this endeavor lies exclusively in industry’s hands. Although challenging, firms must be able to step out of individual frameworks and focus on the bigger picture. This requires putting competitiveness aside and collectively pulling resources together so everyone can benefit in the long term. After all, collaboration on where the tech industry is headed, and what the industry needs to get there, will provide a win-win situation for both employees and employers. The results generated will hopefully provide a steady balance between the cyclical boom and bust, a balance that would not include excessive recruiting strategies and top talent struggling to keep afloat in a skill-flooded sea.

Gary Davis is executive director of the Ottawa Talent Initiative. He can be reached at (613) 254-9914. Visit www.ottawatalentinitiative.ca for more information.

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