Are we net gainers, or net losers?

Canada has a knack for squeezing lemons from lemonade.

Where 24 months ago it was fashionable to look upon our then 67-cent dollar as akin to one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse, instilling enough fear in some quarters as to prompt several prominent CEOs to publicly contemplate replacing it with the more calming colours of the U.S. greenback, today the revitalized 76 cent dollar is causing a whole new brand of heartburn.

The low loonie benefited exporters and, of course, made Canada a very attractive place to plant U.S. IT operations, among other things. In this way, according to McKinsey Group, Canada last year earned US$3.3 billion, behind only India and Ireland in recipients of American IT outsourcing dollars.

Problem is, until I came across that data, I had no idea this was the case.

So given we’re locked in a tight three-way international economic struggle, albeit an unknown one around here, it might be useful to look at our competitors.

Ireland has long since become comfortable with its “Emerald Tiger” reputation, built largely on the favourable investment, education and employment conditions the government tailored specifically for rapid IT development. The result: after generations of youthful exoduses to just about anywhere else in the Western world, and its history of economic struggles, Ireland is today a well-known hot spot for tech talent.

China and India, meanwhile continue to put their young, highly educated and in most cases English-speaking workforce on the global market, and are seeing the results. Granted, these men and women work for far less than their counterparts in North America, making their success a virtual fait accompli in the global marketplace. But their respective national governments have also made – and continue to make – concerted efforts to put the word on the street that they are a safe and smart place to conduct IT business.

I think it’s safe to say that Canada is being somewhat less vocal.

I recently moderated a roundtable of global outsourcing professionals on behalf of the Canadian Information Processing Society, and walked away more convinced than ever that Paul Martin’s government has a lot of work cut out for it to maintain the health of the IT industry.

The panelists agreed that Canada can come out a big winner in the global IT sweepstakes if we attend to the important details now – how can we manage the IT economy if a large chunk of IT jobs go abroad, something that appears now to almost unavoidable? Can we fill that gap with jobs sent north from the U.S.? How do we compensate for a strong Canadian dollar? How do we ensure that the savings companies make on outsourcing IT talent is poured back into our IT economy, thus creating some stability?

None of these questions appear to be on the radar screen in Ottawa. Indeed, one of the most contentious issues arising from the last Manley-Chretien budget revolved around the pros and cons of adding service to Central Canada’s railway system.

And that’s too bad. Because with the dollar surging, and global outsourcing becoming a serious issue than ever for Corporate Canada, we’re at a crossroads. The big question now is: are we a place where jobs come, or a place where jobs leave.

How we choose to answer that question, and deal with it, will have huge ramifications on our IT industry for years to come.

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