Canadian IT enrolment drop has vendors concerned

Faced with an escalating shortage of skilled IT workers, Canadian companies are turning to educational institutions to help develop new generations of IT practitioners. But trends in university computer science enrolments indicate this melting pot of future IT professionals might be going dry.

According to a survey by the Computing Research Association, enrolments in computer science declined by 70 per cent over a five-year period between 2000 and 2005.

Even in high school, and despite a high degree of computer proficiency, fewer students are taking up computer science courses, said Michael Katchabaw, an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario’s Department of Computer Science, at a recent forum on IT careers.

The declining number of IT enrollees could be attributed to the dot-com bubble bursting, explained Katchabaw.

“Right after the bubble burst, everybody who used to think that computer science was the place to go to get a job is now very wary of it.”

He said the more common question that parents have about computer science studies is whether there will be jobs available for their children when they graduate.

“And the answer is, of course, that there are jobs available, and there are plenty of them,” said Katchabaw.

The challenge for universities is breaking people’s misconception that a career in IT is unstable, Katchabaw said. In fact, based on a recent survey of Canadian students, that misconception seems to have penetrated the minds of the younger generation which, despite claiming to have a strong interest in using technologies, are likely to pursue careers other than IT.

Market research firm Youthography recently surveyed Canadian students between the age of 17 and 20 and found that only 36.3 per cent are interested in pursuing a career in IT. Of those who were not interested in computer science, 35 per cent cited “it’s boring” as the top reason.

Katchabaw said that because such misconceptions prevail among the 17 to 20 age group, efforts among universities to encourage more enrolment in computer science are already extending to elementary school.

He said some students are still discouraged by the notion of the “geek culture” associated with those that are pursuing computer science studies.

Recognizing the effect that enrolments would have on the future of the IT industry, technology companies are working with educational institutions to raise awareness that the IT sector is a very lucrative career option.

“It’s clear from the survey that students are very interested in using technology in their day-to-day lives, yet they’re not interested in taking those skills to the next level by turning them into a career,” said Daniel Shapiro, academic program manager at Microsoft Canada, which sponsored the student survey.

He said the task ahead involves helping students to “not only understand technology, but to understand the career opportunities that technology can provide.”

The Microsoft executive also stressed that it’s important to have diversity in the pool of IT learners, which means more women should be encouraged to pursue IT-related careers.

Among the female respondents who participated in the Microsoft-sponsored survey, only 28 per cent are considering a career in IT, despite 75 per cent of them claiming to be proficient in computers in their daily lives.

There’s a reason why employers want to have more women in IT, and it’s more than just fulfilling gender equality in the workplace, according to Alim Somani, president of IT consulting firm Infusion Development based in New York.

“You’re not going to get women for the sake of getting women. You want to get the best and the brightest and hopefully increase the overall quality (of IT professionals),” said Somani.

Microsoft’s Shapiro said diversity will drive innovation and bring new perspectives. “With a diverse culture, [the IT industry] will be able to look at challenges from different perspectives. We don’t want to miss that one person who would have had a huge impact in the world just because they have this misconception that the industry couldn’t benefit them.”

One of the misconceptions about IT is that software development is a “boring” job, Somani said. While it may have had some truth years ago, that’s not the case now, he pointed out.

IT companies have evolved through the years from mere software development shops to organizations that “build business solutions,” Somani said. Most of the “sitting-in-the-room-and-coding” types of job have mostly been outsourced to countries like India.

Companies now look for value-added IT skill sets that can contribute to providing solutions to business challenges, he explained.

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