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A new survey conducted by the Conference Board of Canada for the Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow’s ICT Skills (CCICT) and funded by Bell Canada Inc. suggests high school students aren’t pursuing careers in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) because they don’t believe the work is fun or cool enough.

The report, Connecting Students to Tomorrow’s Jobs and Careers, is based on interviews with 1,034 Grade nine and Grade ten students from 21 schools in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax as well as feedback from 60 parents and 54 guidance/career counselors.

Nearly 77 per cent of students believe ICT jobs offer average or above average pay; 74 per cent believe ICT jobs offers average or above average job security; and 37 per cent believe ICT jobs are above-average in terms of creativity. However, 34 per cent believe ICT jobs are difficult and complex; 31 per cent believe ICT jobs are not fun; and 25 per cent believe ICT jobs are not cool.

“Whether students regard ICT-related careers as appealing or not appear to depend critically on whether they regard ICT jobs as interesting, fun and cool,” states the report.

The driving factor for kids is surprising, according to David Ticolli, executive director of CCICT. “They really are not concerned about whether the jobs are secure or available or whether they pay well, even though they believe that they do,” he said.

While 36 per cent of students reported interest in pursuing ICT careers, 19 per cent found ICT unappealing. Roughly one half are still undecided.

The survey results support a number of the initiatives that the coalition has engaged in for the past year, said Terry Power, president of Sapphire Technologies Canada, a division of Randstad Interim Inc. The Canadian IT staffing firm is a founding member of CCICT, where Power also serves as vice-president of the executive board.

But the main intention behind the survey was to understand the progressive decline in enrolment in computer science programs, Power pointed out.

“There are a lot of assumptions out there,” he said. “Some people thought parents were no longer recommending IT because they got burned in the dot com era, other people were hypothesizing that there was a fear at the high school counsel level that IT jobs are all going to get outshored therefore they weren’t recommending IT paths to kids.”

But the responses had nothing to do with the dot come bust or the fear of longevity, Power added. “They were all about this belief that IT isn’t cool, that the jobs are all heads-down, ‘I’m hanging out on my own in a cubicle and there’s no interaction,’” he said.

The unfortunate reality is that the complete opposite is happening, said Power. “IT is having a much broader impact on the world through business applications, so exactly what these kids want is exactly what is going on in IT. We’ve got a bit of a brand issue on our hands,” he said.

With Canadian post-secondary institutions reporting a 33 to 40 per cent decline in enrollment in computer-related programs since 2001, attracting students to ITC careers is becoming increasingly important. The problem continues to grow as IT pros approach retirement.

Canadian organizations will need to hire at least 150,000 IT professionals between now and 2015, Ticolli pointed out.

Although the existence of an ITC skills shortage seems to contradict the experience of many ITC workers who are experiencing layoffs and struggling to find work, the problem lies in disparate skill sets.

What the IT industry is facing right now is a mismatch in qualifications, according to Ticolli. “It’s a paradox, but it’s not that big a paradox,” he said.

“Just because you’re an IT professional, it doesn’t mean you have the skills that employers need,” said Ticolli, who presented an analogy to the health-care industry. “We had a shortage of doctors and we had a lot of unemployed nurses … you’re not going to get a job as a doctor just because you’re a nurse. It’s a different skill set.”

Demand is shifting from traditional IT occupations to highly specialized positions and business professionals, according to the report.

Sapphire is seeing movement towards business-oriented skill sets, said Power. “In the staffing world, three of our top five skill set requirements that customers ask us for now are non-technical related,” he said.

Specific skill sets that address specific problems are also in demand because they impact the business sooner than a general skill set would, he explained. “What we see less and less of are what we call IT generalist roles,” he said.

The message about the content of ITC jobs needs to change, according to Ticolli. “It’s not about spending your life being a programmer, but that you’re spending your life at the edge of cutting innovation,” he said.

The survey also indicates regional differences, gender differences and the influence of parents and guardians. Montreal-based students reported the highest level of interest in ITC careers. Interest levels continue to vary according to gender, with males twice as likely than females to find careers in ITC appealing.

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