The IT ‘skills shortage’ squabble


Earlier this week CNC Global released its latest IT Careers report, which stated that demand for IT professionals in Canada has reached an “all-time high” – surpassing demand levels experienced during the build up to Y2K. Some welcomed the news. Others were skeptical. Read the article.

Is there really an acute IT skills shortage in Canada?

Is all the talk about a tech talent crunch merely a smoke screen – a pretext to offshore IT jobs to cheaper overseas destinations?

Other things being equal, do factors such as age, gender, background and ethnicity help some, but hamper others from landing suitable IT jobs in Canada?

Is enrolment in computer science and IT courses declining within Canadian academic institutions, and if so, why?

There are few, if any, black and white answers to these “hot potato” questions – as attendees at a session titled Technology Agenda for Growth soon discovered.

Hosted by John Reid, president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance or CATAAlliance, it was one of the key sessions at the IT360 event held in Toronto recently.

CATAAlliance seeks to foster the “global competitiveness” of its members, 80 per cent of whom are currently active exporters.

The seminar’s intended focus was pretty broad: to identify policies and practices that will ensure Canada’s success in the global economy.

But as audience members, invited by Reid, began voicing their views, the session was quickly transformed into a spirited discussion on IT careers, challenges confronting job seekers (and employers) today, and factors behind the perceived “IT skills shortage.”

Participants’ perspectives were wide and varied.

I’ve listed five broad “viewpoints” in this feature, with the caveat that each view really signifies a cluster of similar ideas and opinions, but with slightly different nuances.

1 – “Let’s confront the crunch”

This position takes for granted there is an IT talent crunch and focuses on what needs to be done to address the issue.

That broadly appears to be the position taken by Reid himself at the IT360 conference, and by John Boufford, president of the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) based in Mississauga, Ont.

Boufford, in the past, has commented on what he sees as the severe IT skills shortage in Canada.

So has Reid.

At the IT360 session, they focused on practical steps that can and are being taken by the CATAAlliance, CIPS and other organizations to respond to this perceived crisis.

Boufford repudiated the view that talk about the skills shortage is just a way to get cheap labour offshore. “I personally don’t believe that.”

However, he said the issue is multifaceted and solutions aren’t simple.

He suggested concrete measures be implemented with the cooperation of business, industry associations, educational institutes, and various levels of government.

These include:

• Retraining and retooling IT practitioners

• Companies “[paying] people fair wages, rather than complaining about them moving to better paying jobs”

• Bringing greater diversity into the workforce

On the last point, Boufford noted that CIPS as well as the CATAAlliance have programs that help women find careers in technology.

“While CATA’s focus is to advance them in the entrepreneurial and executive ranks, our focus is on students.”

He said CIPS seeks to influence high-school students at the time they have to decide whether or not to take computer science.

“For the past few years, we’ve organized events for groups of grade nine girls; we have female role-models speak to them about the great, well-paying career opportunities [in IT].”

The intent, he said, is to get the students enthused about these opportunities, so they make choices in high school (such as taking math and science) that open up certain curriculum selections to them once they get to university.

“We can’t afford to be turning our back on 50 per cent of the population – whether it’s [women] or the more diverse ethnic backgrounds that we haven’t been able to tap into in the past.”

Reid said there is a need for Canada to be viewed as an outsourcing destination – viz: for us to have an “insourcing strategy” – and that the CATAAlliance is working with other partners to promote this.

However, he said there’s no getting away from the reality that the cost centres and resources are outside Canada. “If you’re structuring your business, you can’t afford to ignore that.”

The key, he said, is to achieve a balance between insourcing and outsourcing, and get to a point where you insource business, but outsource specific activities “because it just makes better sense.”

He rued what he sees as the lack of a common messaging platform – when it comes to the issue of insourcing. “How can you go out and present yourself as [a land of] opportunity, when you have not agreed on the messaging?”

The views and suggestions of Reid and Boufford are based on the position that there is a fairly severe IT skills shortage in Canada that will get worse unless urgently and appropriately addressed.

It’s a perspective supported by certain recent studies.

For instance, a report by Toronto-based recruiting firm CNC Global Ltd. titled 2006 in Review – IT Staffing Requirements indicates that in 2006, the demand for IT professionals was up 14 per cent across the country over the previous year.

Terry Power, president of the recruiting firm noted that this isn’t a temporary, single-event driven phenomenon– such as the Y2K-related IT talent crunch experienced in 1999.

Rather he sees the skills shortage as “systemic” and possibly having “far reaching implications down the road.”

The same report describes the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) as the single largest market for IT professionals in Canada, accounting for more than 50 per cent of all position requirements.

In 2006, it said, the demand for IT professionals in Canada reached its peak, with the demand for permanent IT staff increasing 30 per cent over the previous year.

It’s been reported that in certain sectors – such as healthcare – the shortage is particularly acute.

Last year CNC Global saw a 20 per cent increase in the number of healthcare-related IT job openings that its clients wanted to fill – a demand consistent across the country.

Media reports earlier this year cited difficulties </ext

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