IT Labour Shortage? What IT Labour Shortage?

It might surprise you that in a recent Statistics Canada report, the state of the Canadian IT labour market was described as follows:

In spite of the growing demand for programmers, these workers put in fewer weekly hours than other scientific and technical workers, and their average work week is declining. Employers have not had to drop their educational requirements in order to meet the demand and most of the new workers are over 25, rather than recent graduates. Moreover, stories of grand salary offers do not seem to be reflected in the broad picture. Finally software workers, whether new on the job or with more seniority, receive pay in line with other scientific and technical workers.”

(Perspectives on Labour and Income, Summer, 1998, pg. 14)

Further, a report by Strategis Canada indicates that the perceived brain drain of technology workers to the U.S. for bigger salaries and less taxes has been more than offset by immigration of high tech workers into Canada. Hence the reasonable conclusion that emigration of Canadian IT talent is not as big an issue as has been reported, and therefore the overall shortage may not be as well.

Tell that to a beleaguered CIO who has been trying to fill IT positions for months without success. Or an IT department that is strained to the limit with client/server, ERP, networking, telecom, maintenance, Y2K, or e-commerce projects that would take the current staff years to complete.

If your IT department is struggling to find and keep the right talent, you are not alone. Business groups, IT associations and even some arms of government agencies recognise the urgency of resolving an IT skills shortage across Canada. The establishment of the Software Human Resource Council (SHRC),Ontario’s “double the pipeline” initiative to increase university space for technology students, and the federal Software Development Worker Pilot that speeds up immigration processing of IT workers are examples of the steps taken to lessen the problem.

So what gives with Statistics Canada and Strategis? Now that your company has recognized the strategic value of IT and is demanding more and more, is there or is there not an IT labour shortage?

Well, it’s pretty hard to tell from official sources. The data being used by the Canadian government for IT policy decision-making is based on only one industry type and two general job categories.


Statistics Canada uses a mix of high level, standard industry and occupational classifications to assess the entire Canadian labour market. Data about the Canadian IT labour market, however, is deduced from one IT industry type: computer service companies. Average wage rates, employment totals and growth, and average work weeks are all summarized and analyzed using computer service companies or some higher level of aggregation such as “business services” to represent all types of IT companies. How similar is your company to a computer services company?

While computer service companies may have represented the mainstream of IT firms twenty years ago, it’s hard to compare a service company with the broad range of IT firms today. Service companies tend to stress stable, efficient operations. Many firms today – like e-commerce firms – operate in highly unstable or constantly changing business climates. The corresponding demand and supply for IT workers can be considerably different.

The second problem with this method is that everyone who is part of the computer services industry is counted – janitors, receptionists, programmers, accountants, salespeople, etc. Would you consider all of them to be IT workers? The numbers do.


Along with industry data, IT occupational data is used to evaluate the IT labour market. Unfortunately, the most abundant IT worker information is lumped together in the category “natural and applied sciences”. This category includes all engineers, architects, and a host of other natural science occupations. Moreover, information on IT managers (such as project managers) is in the general management occupational category with all other general business managers. In the broader context, this information may be useful to government planning, but what does it say about the specific demand for IT workers?

Where detailed IT information is available it is based on only the two job categories of programmer and systems analyst. Imagine placing your next recruiting ad for simply a programmer or a systems analyst. Would you consider your entire IS department to consist of just programmers and systems analysts? Well, in many ways that’s how IT occupational data is assembled and analyzed on the state of Canadian IT workers.

Even then, information about just programmers or analysts is hard to nail down. In a recently completed study of the IT labour market for a state government in the U.S., we identified 29 different basic IT job types and 217 different job titles – including 30 different programmer titles alone – in 1000 IT want ads. A programmer is not a programmer is not a programmer.

The result? Using one industry and two job codes to represent all Canadian IT workers can result in the type of conclusions made in the opening quote – not necessarily wrong (they’re based on collected numbers, after all), but of questionable value. Even recent moves to standardize industry codes across North America don’t alleviate the limitations of too coarse data.


Now consider your situation. You need a telecommunications expert with experience in both networks and telephone switching equipment, or you need an individual with experience in developing e-commerce applications with both IT and marketing skills. Are two job categories or one industry enough to ensure a sufficient pool of talent will be educated, identified, and available? With the coarse and confusing information available, the ability of government and educational institutions to respond at this level of detail is limited and probably too little too late.

In the short run, you can throw money at the problem and simply bid for the talent you need. In the long run, however, you need to be assured the human infrastructure required to build and launch the IT systems of tomorrow is being built today – and most importantly, built right.

What’s our advice? Let the educational system and the government know how concerned you are about our ability to gauge the IT market, let alone fill it. But don’t wait for them to solve the problem. Conduct an inventory assessment of the skills of your current staff, and then take a close look at your IT strategy. Once you’ve identified the skills gaps, look for programs and resources that educate and train for those skills. (The SHRC, various industry associations, and the Internet are great starting places for information.) Scout for non-IT candidates from inside your organization to train for needed IT skills. Then look at your technical staff and bite the bullet to get them into training programs. With the growth in private vocational schools, videoconferenced courses, and online training, there’s a wealth of choices available today that did not exist even five years ago.

The bottom line is that while government policy is based on highly generalized labour data, you’ll likely have to cope on your own for awhile. If you wait for the number crunchers to catch up to reality in the fast-paced IT world, you could be waiting a long time.

Nicole Haggerty is a Research Assistant and Scott Schneberger is an Associate Professor in Information Systems at the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario. Both authors research IT personnel issues.