Feeling the pinch

Despite a recently predicted turnaround in Ontario’s IT job market, unemployed technologists – especially junior ones – are not yet dancing in the streets.

Although heated reader responses to last issue’s “Ontario needs Tech workers” story are still pouring in to ComputerWorld Canada, the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) stands by its prediction that by the end of 2002 the province will be short almost 10,000 skilled technologists.

Passionate feedback surfaces every time ITAC talks about the skills shortage said Lynda Leonard, the organization’s Ottawa-based vice-president of communications and research. The key thing to remember, Leonard said, is that although the study found a surplus of workers in 2001, it will only gradually move back to a deficit by the end of this year.

“It may not necessarily be saying that things are absolutely wonderful at this moment in time, but the employers that we are talking to are predicting job growth, they are predicting job creation,” she said.

The goal of the study was to give as much solid information about what the nature of the labour market looks like to help companies plan for the future, and to help employees and academic institutions track the latest waves of technology, Leonard said.

“We’ve been suffering for a long time from a lack of understanding of the IT (job) market so it’s really quite wonderful to be in the position to have this capacity to really peel back all the layers of the labour market in Ontario and actually understand just what’s going on and what the dynamics of it are,” Leonard said.

However, that assessment and the reality Carolyn Buchanan and Scott Robertson work with every day seem far apart. Buchanan and Robertson are University of Ottawa co-op program managers who have struggled for the last year to find job placements for computer science, computer engineering and software engineering students.

“Right now we are in the process of finding positions for the fall placement and it’s not any more positive than it has been for the past two terms… and these are very skilled third and fourth-year students in many cases,” Buchanan said.

Although there has been a welcome increase in the number of public sector opportunities, Robertson said that in the telecom town of Ottawa there is still a glut of senior people on the job boards that seems to be putting the squeeze on skilled but less experienced workers. And both suggested that the quarter-to-quarter grind of venture capital-driven companies caught in a slowdown discourages long term investment in students despite their attractive skills-to-cost ratio.

“Anyone who is at an entry level in this market is just going to have an incredibly difficult time,” agreed Ajitpal Dipak, a Richmond Hill, Ont.-based software developer who graduated from McMaster University in 2000 and just scored another full-time job after being laid off in June 2001.

During his lengthy job search Dipak came to believe that because of its fluid nature, the IT industry has not developed an apprenticeship model and that companies are more interested in poaching established talent than they are in developing their own.

“Every job I saw posted seemed to have the words senior, architect or team lead and they are looking for people who are five, 10 years in the industry. Because every one of these jobs mentions that you have to mentor junior staff, I’ve often wondered where are they hiring [them],” Dipak said.

Leonard said she is sympathetic to anybody who has invested the time and money in IT skills and is having difficulty finding employment, and offered a few suggestions for jamming a foot into the high-tech door.

One thing the ITAC study found, she said, is that technical skills are just the beginning for many employers. For example, they’ve identified very strongly that collaborative skills and the ability to communicate effectively are critical in this sector, so it’s important to highlight these if you have them, and do some remedial work if you don’t. She also recommended pursuing internships and volunteer work to build up a resume.

“The not-for-profit sector is crying for [IT] skills and looking for smart people who can assist them with things like database creation. That’s a credential for you if you are prepared to spend the time,” Leonard said.

As well as looking up all your old friends, calling everyone and exploring the hidden market of unadvertised positions, the newly hired Dipak also stressed the importance of maintaining technical skills – something that easy to say but difficult to do, he added.

“You get so frustrated and demoralized while you are looking and I found there were days when I didn’t want to have anything to do with technology – it was almost like betrayal to read those technical papers. But when you do get that interview you want to be able to show that you have the latest expertise,” he said.

The entire “Meeting the Skills Needs of Ontario’s Technology Sector” report, completed for ITAC by IDC Canada and Aon Consulting and funded by Human Resources Development Canada, is available online at www.ITAC.ca.