IT university enrolment plunges

Employers must be creative to fill IT staffing needs

In an age when a company’s biggest deals are sealed with a text-message and most staff can’t imagine a world before high-speed Internet or work without a hand-held device, finding information technology talent is surprisingly hard — and about to get a whole lot harder.

Enrolment in computer sciences at Canadian universities is down dramatically in every province with the exception of British Columbia, according to the study Outlook on Enrolments in Computer Sciences in Canadian Universities, conducted by researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

The Atlantic provinces are among the worst hit with undergraduate enrolment down by 60 per cent in 2006-2007 (535 students) compared to enrolment during the height of the dot-com boom in 2001-2002 (1,487 students). Ontario is down about 50 per cent (from 12,510 to 5,817) and the rest of the provinces by 30 per cent to 40 per cent.

“We’re also seeing tremendous drops across masters and PhDs,” said Paul Swinwood, president of the Ottawa-based Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), which commissioned the Dalhousie study.

“People say, ‘Oh, this is about universities wanting to get their numbers up.’ This is about to be an industry problem, too,” said Swinwood.

The ICTC estimates 89,000 new people will be needed in the information technology sector in Canada by 2010 — 35,000 in the health-care sector alone — around the same time these small class sizes will be graduating.

The authors surmise B.C.’s numbers have been steady because its universities were early adopters of interdisciplinary programs that combine computer science training and a particular sector, such as health care. The attention on soft skills, such as communications, also helps attract more women, said Jacob Slonim, Dalhousie professor and study co-author.

Currently, student computer sciences populations are composed of only 15 per cent women, he said. When Dalhousie launched its interdisciplinary undergraduate program called Health Informatics last year, 35 per cent of students were women.

The dearth of graduating students will coincide with another startling fact, said Swinwood.

“About 50 per cent of the early adopters of computers systems who put the legacy systems in place are going to be entitled to early retirement in the next three to five years,” he said. “Right now, one bank we talked to needs 250 IT people for its legacy systems.”

The shortfall in information and communications technology (ICT) talent won’t be offset by attracting foreign workers, said Swinwood. The federal temporary foreign worker program, for example, brought only 1,500 ICT specialists to Canada last year.

Retention strategies will be critical, said Swinwood. Employers should look for ways to “reskill” mature ICT people at local community colleges and train employees who have an aptitude, past experience or interest in switching career paths to computer sciences. Budgeting for these recruitment strategies will be a necessity, said Swinwood, as companies already spend about five to seven times the average on technology training.

The study’s findings confirmed Statistics Canada’s 2004 data, the most recent numbers available, which started to show a decline, said associate professor Mike McAllister at the faculty of computer sciences at Dalhousie. The 36 participating universities said one of the reasons for the slipping enrolment is parents’ misperception that computer sciences is an unstable profession, thanks to the dot-com bust.

In fact, said Swinwood, the ICT labour force in Canada is bigger by 25,000 employees than it was at the height of the dot-com boom. To get positive messages out to parents and high school guidance counselors, “businesses have to start bragging about new ICT hires and projects in press releases,” said Swinwood.

Another major misperception, said McAllister, is computer sciences is boring and geeky.

“It’s not just about writing programs,” he said. “It’s seeing how computers can solve problems and provide business solutions as well.”

Company recruitment efforts should target high schools and have role models speak about the exciting aspects of an ICT career, said McAllister. Swinwood said it wouldn’t hurt to boast of big paycheques, too — the average ICT salary is $85,000.

Colleges and universities need to participate in more co-op programs as well, he said. “Co-op demand has gone through the roof by companies. There are one, two, three employment opportunities for each co-op student today.”

Lesley Young is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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