Tech job search gets boost

Laid-off tech workers in the Ottawa area have recently held town hall meetings to discuss how to get back into the workforce.

The meetings are a way to bring attention to issues the 14,000 or so unemployed or underemployed tech workers in that area face when looking for jobs in technology or other sectors, said Peggy Feltmate, executive director of the Western Ottawa Community Resource Centre, and organizer of the meeting.

The first gathering took place at the beginning of June; the 30 people who showed up that day “identified 87 different needs, gaps and frustrations” they were encountering in their job search, said Feltmate. A steering committee of 12 people was then formed to organize those issues into categories, prioritize which issues to tackle first, and propose some game plans.

At the most recent town hall meeting held at the end of July, the committee “went back to the group and said, “These are the key areas we see and where we can go from here,'” she said.

One of the four key areas had to do with future direction: how to decide whether to stay in technology or move to another field; how to make a career change; where to get labour market information; and how to identify transferable skills or interests.

Many former tech workers are not sure where they should go next, said Feltmate. “They’ve been out of a job for a while, they want to work and use their skills. If high tech were to rebound, they’d be back in a minute,” she said. “But right now they feel a bit immobilized – they’ve had a lot of education and training and they’re asking themselves, ‘How can we invest more years into training only to maybe have this happen again?'”

For those considering a change, employer engagement is key to finding out what skills are necessary in other fields, said Dave Sproule, one of the town hall’s committee of 12 who lost his job last November after 25 years at Nortel.

Although technology workers have great skills in their own field, it’s often difficult for them to articulate how those skills are transferable when they’re looking into other sectors, said Sproule.

“One of our recommendations is for us to go out and talk to employers, and create profiles of what a certain sector’s jargon is and what its expected skill sets are,” said Sproule. “We can create a map…that says, ‘Here is the terminology you use in that sector’ – it’s sort of like currency conversion.”

Job-finding tools, including training and networking, was the second area of interest. Sproule said it’s hard to tell where the jobs are, and often frustration emerges from repeatedly sending out resumes and not hearing anything back from employers. He wants the group to create a job-finding how-to guide to “(tell) people where to start, rather than them trying to discover the process on their own.”

Other needs include access to a work space, computers, and software for skills maintenance and upgrading. Jeanne Gillanders, another town hall committee member, said the requirements for technical skills evolve quickly and it’s tough to keep up with them. Gillanders worked for 20 years in the telecom business, the last four at Nortel, before she was laid off in May 2001.

“Once out on street, it’s expensive to build a lab in your own basement. How can we keep skills up-to-date without spending thousands on courses?” she said.

Gillanders hopes the training question might addressed by a third party such as a university or industry association that opens up its facilities to laid-off workers.

French language training was also high on the list. “It’s a big issue for those who want to get into the federal government – many jobs require you to be bilingual and many high tech workers are not,” Feltmate said.

The third category involved the type of financial and emotional support available to help people get through the crisis. Questions about how to deal with losing a home and budgeting were all on the list.

“Sometimes the spouses don’t understand…unless they go through unemployment themselves,” Gillanders said, adding that joint counseling can help in this area.

The fourth area revolved around how laid-off tech workers can connect with community groups and employers – “what kinds of opportunities government and non-profit organizations can come up with to support them,” Feltmate said. Sproule added that he would like to see more government and industry programs for laid-off tech workers.