Price tag of IT shortage: $10 billion per year

Teaching IT in elementary and secondary schools could boost interest in post-secondary IT studies

If businesses and governments don’t address an expected IT shortage, it will cost the Canadian economy more than $10 billion for each year the jobs remain vacant, according to a Conference Board of Canada report.

Securing our Future found there are 638,800 Canadians working in IT jobs, generating $139 billion in annual revenue. Slightly less than 40 per cent of them actually work in the IT sector, while the rest are scattered throughout every other sector of the economy.

“They’re in those key places now in all the business processes. Because of this pervasiveness, IT workers are central to innovation, they’re central to productivity gains and they’re also central to competitiveness, particularly in a global environment,” said Michael Bloom, vice-president of organizational effectiveness and learning at the Conference Board in Ottawa.

In the next three to five years, there will be about 89,000 IT jobs that need to be filled across Canada, according to the Ottawa-based Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). In the report, the Conference Board calculates the annual economic impact of each IT worker is $119,335. Therefore, if the 89,000 jobs go unfilled for one year, it will cost the economy $10.6 billion.

“If left uncontested, the IT skills gap will create gaps in our economic performance, gaps in our productivity and gaps in our ability to compete globally,” said Stéphane Boisvert, president of Montreal-based Bell Enterprise Group.

While demographics — the aging population, retiring baby boomers and low birthrates — will contribute to the expected IT shortage, the report found the industry has other challenges it must overcome.

Following the dot-com bust at the turn of the century, there has been a significant drop in enrolments in IT programs at universities across Canada, according to a study by Halifax’s Dalhousie University. It found a 36-per-cent to 64-per-cent drop in enrolment in computer science programs in all provinces, except British Columbia, from 2001-2002 to 2006-2007.

There is also an under-representation of key population groups, including women and immigrants in IT jobs, and a mismatch between the skills of available workers and the changing needs of employers.

To address these problems and prevent the economic impact of an IT shortage, various businesses and organizations have formed the Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow’s IT Skills. The coalition, initiated by Bell, has more than 40 members, including Hydro-Québec, Nortel Networks, BMO Financial Group, Cisco Systems Canada, Air Canada, ICTC and the Toronto Board of Trade.

For the first time, employers from different industries and various associations and organizations are working together, said Boisvert.

“I think this voice will be extremely strong,” he said.

The coalition has three major objectives: raise the profile of IT careers among young people; educate the public about IT’s contribution to Canada’s economic prosperity; and develop and sustain Canadian IT know-how.

According to Bloom, at the Conference Board, one way to get more young people interested in IT as a career is to link it with an area many of them are interested in — the environment.

“You need to cross-connect the areas,” he said. “Students in high school are very aware of environmental issues.”

Part of the third objective is working with governments to make immigration policies more flexible in order to attract more foreign-trained professionals and get them into jobs faster, said Boisvert.

“We’re putting both short- and long-term economic growth at risk if we don’t take action now,” said Boisvert. “The coalition, together with the corporate and public sectors, can turn the tide of the professional IT shortage and reverse the flow of outsourcing of these important, high-paying jobs beyond our borders.”

The Conference Board report recommends adding information and communication technology to the kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum to help drive more students into IT-related post-secondary programs. It also recommends offering co-op education programs, mentorships and internships to bridge the transition from education to employment.


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IT shortage will hit all jobs

According to the Conference Board of Canada, the most in-demand IT occupations are:

• managers — HR managers, computer and information systems managers and e-commerce managers;

• engineers — electrical and electronics engineers, computer engineers (excluding software) and software engineers;

• analysts — information systems analysts and consultants, database analysts and data administrators;

• programmers — computer programmers and interactive media developers, web designers and developers;

• technicians — computer and network operators and web technicians, user-support technicians and systems-testing technicians; and

• other — technical writers, graphic designers and illustrators.

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