Ottawa group addresses high-tech unemployment

The Ottawa Talent Initiative (OTI) this week released a Community Action Plan (CAP) to address the issue of unemployment in the technology sector.

OTI is a grass-roots organization that is comprised of out-of-work volunteers and community members working together, with the goal of initiating positive change for the unemployed and underemployed technology workers in the Ottawa area, according to the group.

Dave Sproule, a member of the OTI steering committee, said the goal of the CAP release is to “get the broader community involved so they can understand the issues and see what opportunities there are to put this high-tech talent to use.”

Before writing this plan, the OTI said it brought many self-help groups together to define the sector’s most urgent needs and bring forward possible solutions. All levels of government needed to be engaged, and community groups, businesses and other stakeholders had to be consulted. The Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities funded the creation of the plan.

According to the OTI, the plan calls for 18 actions, many of which are intended to enhance government programs and services to address the ongoing and urgent needs of thousands of technology workers — a large number of them concentrated in the Ottawa-Gatineau region — who remain unemployed or underutilized.

The first action is the launch of a Grow Jobs in Ottawa forum — “a one- to two-day workshop involving key stakeholders in the community wanting to develop concrete solutions to growing jobs in Ottawa,” explained Sproule, who was laid off in November 2002 after 25 years at Nortel Networks Ltd. This community strategy session would involve representatives from different sectors of the Ottawa economy, which is key for high-tech workers interested in transitioning to other industries.

“The big issue is people being able to enter into other sectors and find opportunities for jobs,” Sproule said. “We want to have broader engagement for the community…[and discuss] how can we make the economy more successful in Ottawa, help people get placed and make them more successful.

The second action on the list is the opening of a High Tech Community Action Centre, to be run by those affected by the layoffs to provide centralized information and services. “One of the needs is to have a centre people can come to, in order to get information and to understand what programs are available to them and which ones they can take advantage of.”

Through surveys done at the Ottawa Talent Forum (OTF) in February, OTI found that “not many people were aware of what programs and services are available to them,” said Sproule, adding that the centre would have a “specific focus on the high-tech community.”

These actions are the top priorities in the CAP because tackling high-tech unemployment issues without a plan for job growth and an action centre would be like trying to “boil the ocean” — it would be difficult to get results, he said.

Other projects recommended in the CAP include immediate support for underemployed and unemployed tech workers through avenues such as information exchange sessions with employers in various industry to determine how the unemployed can better understand the businesses that make up these industries, their challenges and skillsets required. Businesses, meanwhile, would gain more of an appreciation for the skillsets and value these workers can add to their businesses, according to the plan.

Extended employment insurance benefits, career counselling and family support services, financial counselling and one-on-one intervention for the long-term unemployed also fall into this category.

The other category includes ways to provide assistance for workers to transition into other sectors. Identifying skills and skills gaps of technology workers, forming a transition assessment program, initiating targeted skills training with financial assistance, French language training and career counseling for transitioning workers are all forms of shorter-term assistance.

Mid- to long-term assistance might include a sector transition subsidy, sponsorship for security clearance, better labour market and economic data to support transition training, a more high-tech-specific view of economic forecast data, and co-op or internship programs.

Prior to releasing CAP, the OTI invited people from different networking groups to a meeting where they presented the plan’s 18 points. Sandra Lifshitz, who spent seven years at Nortel as a real-time embedded systems software designer before losing her job in the summer of 2001, was at the meeting. She said the one thing she likes about the revised plan is that the Grow Jobs in Ottawa forum was moved up to priority one — it was further down the list before. “I hope lots of people will participate,” she said.

But other items on the list could have a higher priority, in her view. “The labour market and economic data,” which is number 15 on the list, “should be way higher…because unless you have the right information, you can’t make good decisions” about your next career move, she said.

Lifshitz said some of the points also seem to overlap — for example, exchanging information with industry sectors could be tied to obtaining accurate labour market and economic data. There are several points related to career transition, but Lifshitz said a lot of them are “scattered about and a bit messy.” She added that she foresees a “long process to get this document in better shape and get some proposals on the table.”

The OTI Steering Committee is now working on funding proposals to implement the CAP’s recommended actions. The full document can be downloaded at

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