Canada’s IT sector needs to market itself better, say experts

To encourage more youngsters to enroll in computer science courses, the industry needs to do a better job at spreading the good news around an IT career: It pays really well.

That’s one of the recommendations that came out of a gathering Wednesday of Canadian educators and industry analysts to outline their views on the lack of qualified workers in the IT and networking industry. At a panel discussion at its Toronto headquarters, Cisco Canada said the Canadian IT sector requires approximately 35,000 new hires annually to keep up with the employment demand.

However, only about 7,000 students graduate each year in computer sciences, computer engineering and other IT-related disciplines.

“The media took the Y2K hangover, the dot com burst and the lack of enrolment and really amplified it,” said Mauro Lollo, co-founder and CTO at Oakville, Ont.-based technology solutions provider UNIS LUMIN, and one of the speakers at the event.

“So, young minds working their way through school has seen this and steered away from IT,” he said, adding that one solution could be for the industry to try and stress the earnings and growth potential to high school students who are still deciding on their career paths.

“I’ve found it interesting that those kids who haven’t listened to the mainstream and gotten into IT are coming out earning more, with better potential career opportunities than their peers,” Lollo said. “Whenever I do pep talks at school to try and get them interested in IT, I drive in with a new car hoping that will motivate them.”

The panel discussion formed part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the Cisco Networking Academy. The initiative is a global e-learning program which gives students the opportunity to pursue IT-related courses through online training and hands-on workshops. Over 10,000 academies are located in high schools, technical schools, colleges, and universities in about 160 countries.

“The picture in Canada is bleak and we believe there is a significant problem,” said Paul Swinwood, president of the Information and Communications Technology Council.

“At colleges and universities we’re seeing a 30 to 70 per cent drop in enrolment,” he added.

Putting the stats aside, many of the panelists mulled over some of the reasons why there is IT skills shortage in the first place. A common theme throughout the discussion centred on the need for IT to gain exposure and get on the radar of young students in elementary and high school.

“One of the most popular shows that young people are watching is CSI, so it’s no surprise that the universities are flooding with courses related to that,” Pam Baldaro, a Cisco Networking Academy instructor at Winnipeg-based West Kildonan Collegiate, said.

“It’s hard to funnel kids into IT when there’s no profile for it. We have to find a way to get it out there and make it more interesting for kids to try it,” Baldaro added.

Anne Miller, education marketing manager at Cisco Canada, said the academy was created in 1997 to directly respond to the lack of financial and human resources in IT and network management.

“With the Cisco Networking Academy, we have a program designed specifically for the working environment,” Miller said. “Students value the ability to graduate from their respective schools, while still being able to get the practical skills from the academy. And this is important as we face the critical shortage of IT skills in Canada.”

Robert Wager, program coordinator for experiential learning at the Toronto District School Board, said the lack of funding for IT-related courses and equipment has been a huge contributor to the current problem. He said increased budgets for IT labs as well as participation from programs such as Cisco’s Networking Academy may help curtail the problem.

“When money is spent, it’s on security cameras, hall monitors, and other things like that, but it’s interesting because nothing turns on a kid more than a state of the art computer lab,” Wager said. “So with Cisco, it’s bringing practical IT training and skills that are tangible in real world.”

And with 500,000 active students worldwide, Miller said the continued collaboration of the entire industry is needed, especially if Canada is to remain competitive in the global economy.

“The industry needs to keep working to change its perception, and research firms, educators and partners need to come together to make it work,” Miller said.

News and information on where to find local Cisco academies can be found through Cisco Canada’s Web site.

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