Networking tops list of IT skills: IDC

On behalf of the Software Human Research Council (SHRC), IDC Canada Ltd. polled 414 senior IT professionals from across Canada in Q4 2003 regarding the IT skills their organizations needed most. There was a resounding answer — networking.

The top five IT skills Canadian companies are seeking, in order, include TCP/IP, proficiency with Microsoft Corp.’s Windows XP, Windows 2000/ME, security skills and knowledge of Microsoft’s SQL Server, according to the survey released late last month.

These results compare to a Q1 2002 IDC survey of 252 senior IT professionals and HR professionals in Ontario. The top skills sought by employers at the time were: Microsoft SQL Server, security skills, Windows NT Server, Microsoft Exchange and wide area networking. Results were similar for the three regions indicated by IDC Canada: Western Canada, Ontario and Eastern Canada.

Now, skills needed by medium and large Canadian companies fall into the areas of infrastructure, reliability and security, said Julie Kaufman, director, Canadian professional services research at IDC Canada in Toronto.

Additionally, because three of the top five skills relate to Microsoft products, IT workers will need to have some level of Microsoft skills to succeed, Kaufman added.

But not everyone agrees that such studies paint an accurate picture of what skills are really in demand.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Computer Science from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, Sandra Liftshitz worked for Motorola and in the aircraft industry before coming to Canada. She spent seven years at Nortel as a real-time embedded systems software designer before losing her job in the summer of 2001.

In May 2002 ITAC forecasted the creation of 38,000 IT jobs in 2002, potentially creating a gap of approximately 9,900 unfilled positions. “ITAC was predicting a lack of consulting people in IT — which was exactly what I wanted to hear by that time,” Lifshitz said.

She hit the library, signing out books on some of the top skills highlighted in the survey, confident that she could quickly learn the basics and that she wouldn’t need a whole lot of time on the job to gain the necessary experience. “If anybody needs me, I could spend one month (learning hands-on) and I’d be flying.” But two years have gone by, and Lifshitz is still unemployed.

One of the problems with surveys, Lifshitz said, is the lag time between when the participants are polled and when the results come out. When companies responded to the 2002 survey earlier in the year, “it may have been a true assessment that they might need to hire some more people into the workforce, but probably the companies didn’t have any idea of what was coming.”

This year’s study found that the number of companies reporting a lack of qualified candidates for IT positions has decreased since the 2002 survey. In Q4 of 2003 only 25.2 per cent of companies said a skills shortage existed, 22.5 per cent said they weren’t sure, while 52.3 per cent said no. In Q1 of 2002, 32.1 per cent insisted a skills shortage abounded, while 33.3 per cent couldn’t decide and 34.55 per cent said no.

According to John Beattie, Scarborough, Ont.-based Telus Mobility’s vice-president of technology operations, it’s not tough to find highly skilled technical people these days. But he said he also looks for someone with a good attitude, who is the right fit with his company’s fast-paced and energetic culture, and who has good communication skills — a combination he said his hard to come by.

“We’re not like some banks that have five or six people for one function. We might need only two people for one function so we need good, experienced, quality folks who can handle a lot of work put out in a short period of time.”

Beattie agreed that some of the skills identified by ITAC, like security, are pretty hot, but Microsoft skills are “a dime a dozen. We have no problem getting Microsoft Exchange, Server, all that kind of stuff.”

He said that in order to be considered for a position, candidates should be prepared to “describe situations and examples that highlight team-building and communication skills.”

The other key is for job seekers to go into the interview “bright eyed, with a keen interest” in what will be discussed, and prepared to talk about how they can contribute to the company. Having the perfect technical qualifications doesn’t necessarily mean the applicant will automatically be considered.

“You’d be surprised at the poor attitudes we come across in interviews. Some people are carrying a lot of baggage. They’re still upset about a company laying them off. We do behavioural interviewing, and the more you get them talking, the more skeletons come flying out of the closet….It’s surprising how many people eliminate themselves from the first or second interview.”

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