Colleges move to address e-skills gap

Supply and demand is a funny thing. It usually balances itself out, but in today’s increasingly e-world, demand for skilled workers is so far ahead of the supply that it seems like every position filled creates two new ones.

But many local colleges are striving to deal with the issue while, at the same time, forging relationships with industry to help keep recent graduates from fleeing south.

One move in this space is the recent announcement that Microsoft Canada and Humber College in Toronto are creating an initiative dubbed the College of e. The result is intended as a response to the growing skills shortage afflicting the Canadian IT community.

“Our goal is to integrate electronic commerce across our curriculum,” said Robert Gordon, president of Humber College. He added that he would like to see as many as two thirds of their students take an e-commerce program to better place them in the job market and help to reduce the skills gap.

And that gap is substantial, according to Jim Wilson, Ontario’s Minister of Energy, Science and Technology. “We have some associations in Ontario that actually estimate the figure could be anywhere from 35,000 to 58,000 jobs in the high-tech sector today in Ontario going unfilled because we don’t have the people around with the skill base to take on those new jobs,” he said.

Immediate steps

In the immediate future, Microsoft is attempting to address some of the key areas affected by the shortage. “We are trying to get retrained new graduates, right now, for some of the most in demand IT skills, specifically around e-commerce,” Simon Witts, president of Microsoft Canada said during Humber’s announcement.

He added that 88 per cent of high-tech companies say the skills shortage is the most serious hurdle to be overcome if they want to keep their business growing.

Humber’s initiative is based on a five-pronged attack designed to address specific areas. The close relationship between the school and Microsoft has meant that the design and implementation of the program was a collaborative effort.

The programs require students to intern for two months at an IT company and to spend another two months working on a team project to create an e-commerce site. These four months go a long way toward keeping recently-educated students north of the boarder, according to Rick Embree, dean of planning and development at Humber. “[It] helps them get to know Canadian companies and business,” he said.

Though Humber may be on the cutting edge, they are by no means alone in their effort to deal with the skills gap. In fact most Canadian colleges that have high-tech curriculum are moving in a similar direction.

recent graduates

Seneca College in Toronto has several programs in the works, and other programs have already released graduates into the marketplace. Their faculty of business has created a post-diploma Internet and Electronic Commerce program that is geared toward people with business degrees who want to move into e-commerce. Since the field is new, nothing can be written in stone. “We are looking at this as a continually evolving program,” said Corrine Falconer, chair of the school of marketing and e-business.

The program’s first 35 graduates, who finished in August of 1999, are working for companies as diverse as UUNET and Scotia Bank. Falconer said the interest has been so great that they are seriously considering expanding the program. Seneca is also hoping to move its program to co-op by the summer of 2001, in order to forge a stronger relationship between the students and local IT companies.

Seneca’s Internet Commerce and Technology Institute is taking e-learning one step further. They will be offering a post graduate e-commerce program that will be delivered entirely on-line. This will allow currently employed people a chance to upgrade their skills. “We are in the process of putting a lot of our subjects on-line so that people can get a diploma without ever having to be physically present,” said Tony Tanner, dean of the faculty of technology at Seneca. He said the college presently has about 30 courses on-line and hopes to add another 20 by the fall.

But moving on-line creates new problems. If real-estate is all about location, then on-line learning is all about bandwidth. Nobody wants to download an 8MB course simulation on a 56Kbps modem. So until all of the students have faster access, curriculum will be slightly limited.

Stephen Ibaraki, senior faculty member at North Vancouver’s Capillano College, agrees that bandwidth is still a big issue. “We still have a situation where curriculum has to be designed for the 56k environment,” he said.

The college has also added programs to address the skills shortage. “We offer an e-commerce course that describes not only how to set up a Web site database computer but also all the architecture which keeps track of information.”