Tight job market finds employers looking closely at education

Not so many semesters ago, companies were in dire straits when it came to filling seats with qualified employees. Along with the demand for employable IT workers came an increase of programs designed to train people for IT-related positions. Now, with companies scaling back and the resource pool larger than ever, the value of different types of education has come into question.

According to Randy Straeten, vice-president of W5 Resources Inc. in Markham, Ont., employers are in the position to hire with more discretion than a few years back, and education is receiving more attention.

Jeff Dyck, a PhD student in computer science at the University of Saskatchewan and senior software architect at Saskatoon-based Hamilton Myriad Gate, recognizes that there is room for both university and college-based education within IT. However, Dyck noted that graduates from the different programs are most likely suited to different sorts of jobs.

“There is definitely room in the IT world for people who haven’t got a ton of education, but the roles that they play aren’t going to involve project management or designing software,” he said.

Dyck likened the IT industry to the medical field, noting that within a hospital there are specialists, doctors, nurses, orderlies and assistants – all of whom contribute to the goal of helping people, but all of whom have different levels of experience and education. It’s the same with IT, he said.

“There’s a wide breadth of people within the industry, and people with a little bit of training can do things like help-desk support or more technical things like data base administration or systems administration, because they don’t teach that sort of stuff at university,” he said.

While Straeten agreed with Dyck in theory, he maintained that a university degree will almost always prove advantageous when it comes to a hiring decision.

“If there are two candidates with similar experience, but one of them has a university degree, the employer will almost always select the one with the university degree. A university degree indicates that the candidate is more well rounded and that they can be up for almost any challenge,” Straeten said.

In Dyck’s capacity at Hamilton Myriad Gate, he has encountered both university and two-year diploma graduates, and has noticed a difference in terms of capabilities.

“We find that a lot of the two-year grads aren’t really up on their skills. They go through the program way too fast – and to become a real IT professional, it takes a while for everything to really sink in,” he said. “The goals of these colleges is to get someone into the job market as fast as possible, and in this quickly industry, it’s not that practical.”

He pointed out that these kinds of programs work well for other trades – like auto mechanics – because they tend to be more generic. If you learn to be a C++ programmer through one of these two-year colleges because people are looking for C++ programmers, it’s okay, but you have to realize that next year some other language is going to be hot, Dyck said.

Sandy Elrick, a graduate of Calgary’s Devry Institute of Technology thought the course load was intense, but found that the school’s hands-on approach was a good primer for the real world of IT. Elrick chose Devry after facing a negative experience in university.

“I didn’t learn well in university because of the large classroom sizes and lack of hands-on work. Frankly, I was disappointed with the fact that you basically regurgitated your first one-to-three years of work back to get marks instead of applying what you learned as you went,” he said.

Besides the technical skills taught at schools like Devry, Elrick left the program with other skills that he has found useful in the real world.

“You have to learn how to network with potential companies, clients and co-workers in the industry in order to get ahead. You have to maintain and upgrade your skills to remain marketable. Without those it really doesn’t matter where you go for an education,” Elrick said.

While Straeten recognizes the increased challenges in the job market for graduates of colleges as compared with graduates of universities, he acknowledges that these diploma schools are here to stay.

“As long as new technology continues to come out at the rate it’s been going, these schools will always be there, although candidates are a lot less willing to put down 10 or 12 thousand dollars for a year’s tuition if there are no job prospects out there,” he said.