Pilot project launches new IT designation

A British Columbia pilot program will allow recent high school grads to apprentice for high-tech companies and earn a designation as an IT professional without ever getting a post-secondary education.

The program was launched recently in Vancouver at the Softworld 2001 conference by the Software Human Resource Council (SHRC).

Under the new system, students are designated with the Information Technology Support Associate title and take entry level IT jobs with partner employers. The program allows the graduates to earn industry and provincial accreditation, giving them portable employability skills.

Paul Swinwood, president of the Ottawa-based SHRC, said the program has been well received so far.

“I see this as a permanent program in British Columbia and, in fact, we will be working with every other province to roll out a program like this in every other province in the country,” he said. “It’s an excellent entry into the IT world.”

Swinwood added that 60 per cent of students don’t go on to post-secondary education, and, already, the program is over-subscribed to in British Columbia.

“One of the things that we have to look at is that the graduates coming out of this are coming out three years from now,” he said. “We put the word out and I would suggest that we could have taken twice as many students as we did. I am not worried about these students finding work when they get out.”

By the end of Grade 12, students have work experience and go into a one-year apprenticeship placement with industry leading companies, the final stage of certification.

Tom Keenan, dean of continuing education at the University of Calgary, said he sees nothing but positives coming out of this project.

“I think it’s wonderful because one of our issues is getting good people into the industry,” he said from Calgary. “What we are finding is that there are such a range of jobs in IT and what we have now is a missing link, there’s a gap there, in jobs that are meaningful and paid decently that you didn’t need advanced credentials for. This is going to be a godsend.”

The classes began at the three participating B.C. schools – Mount Boucherie Secondary School, Rutland Senior Secondary School and Riverside Secondary School – in September after a teacher training session in August.

“There is so much enthusiasm and why not harness that,” Keenan added. “I would love all these kids to go onto university, but for the ones who aren’t I would much rather see them in this than slinging hamburgers.”

This announcement came in the same week as a report released by the SHRC which found that while senior IT professionals have so far fared well in the new economic downturn, junior techies are taking a hit.

Janice Schellenberger, senior partner at Personnel Systems, the group that completed the report, entitled IT Software Jobs Navigate through the Economic Downturn, said it’s updated every year to track the evolution of IT salaries. But given recent events, the group added some new questions in the latest version.

“This year, with the economic downturn or uncertainty, there is a popular perception that salaries would have gone down,” she said. “The outcome of the study is that salaries are not going down overall, but certainly the magnitude of the increase has slowed on a yearly basis.”

However, Schellenberger added, some IT jobs have been more affected than others by the slowdown.

“Jobs in the operation side of IT, like network administrators, certainly their salaries are slowing more quickly, but software developers at the senior level are still seeing double digit increases,” she said. “There has been an impact, but to suggest that the impact has actually seen lowered salaries in those areas is not true.”

Schellenberger said some of the results were a pleasant surprise because expectations were that the numbers would be much worse than they are. However, the numbers were not kind to those new to the industry.

“There has been a huge influx of people into junior levels in the last couple of years, so to some degree, supply is just meeting demand,” she said. “Into the development area, the shortage is senior, highly skilled people.”

That said, the work still needs to be done, Keenan added.

“And these kids are not going to be getting $100,000 to start,” he said. “I also believe we are going to get these kids back. They will get out there, get a real taste of what the industry is like and make some money, and the smarter of them will realize that they need a credential a few years later.”

Brian Westbrook, an education specialist with the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS), a national IT standards organization, agrees with Keenan, adding that anything that increases the visibility of IT to students can’t be wrong.

“It would be nice if one day we would not have to rely so heavily on our federal government to make special rules about immigration in order to fast track qualified men and women to shore up our much needed IT population,” he said.