VP and Community Advocate, IT World Canada

If the IT market is so hot, why is it evoking such a cool response from the Canadian student community?

That’s just one conundrum a select group of IT industry insiders sought to investigate during a recent panel discussion organized by Cisco Canada to mark the 10th Anniversary of the Cisco Networking Academy.

“Last year we saw a salary increase of 4.1 per cent against the cost of living increase of 2 per cent. In some areas the [rise in salaries] was higherJohn Pickett>TextThe Academy is an e-learning program launched globally by Cisco to equip students with Internet technology skills required in the job market.

Panelists proffered views on a broad range of IT career-related issues including:

  • The enigma of declining enrolments
  • The hassles of harried hiring managers
  • IT branding blues

Some compared the “skills crunch” to a ticking time bomb that Canadian industry, government and academia need to jointly defuse before it’s too late.

In this feature, we encapsulate the panel’s insights and observations into five key take-aways.

Some perspectives recorded here are admittedly controversial, and we offer them up with the caveat that they are just that: perspectives on an issue about which so much can – and has – been said.

Message 1 – “The skills shortage is real – and it’s growing”

Despite the diversity of views expressed by panelists, on one topic there was near consensus: the IT skills crunch is very real. In support of this view panelists cited: stats on IT workforce mobility, the significant increase in IT salaries, the testimony of hiring managers, the “baby boomer retirement” phenomenon, and more.

IT salaries have been growing across the board, and in excess of the cost of living, noted John Pickett, vice-president and editorial director at Toronto-based IT World Canada Inc.

“Last year,” he said, “we saw a salary increase of 4.1 per cent against the cost of living increase of 2 per cent. In some areas the [rise in salaries] was higher.”

Pickett noted that in Alberta, where the IT sector is on a roll, the increase has been around 7.5 per cent, and in certain disciplines, a lot higher than that.

“Rising IT salaries simply means there’s greater competition for the same skills.”

Paul Swinwood, president of the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) echoed this view. Ottawa-based ICTC is non-profit sector council with a mandate to create a strong, and highly educated Canadian ICT industry and workforce.

Swinwood said ICTC tracks the IT labour market working closely with Stats Canada.

StatsCan officials, he said, prefer to dub it: “a tight [IT] labour market” instead of using the term shortage.

“But even they are coming to agree with me that there must be a shortage of some sort, when salaries at the middle and upper end of the market are growing at a rate of 16 per cent a year.”

The only time salaries grow that dramatically, he said, is when there is a skills shortage.

Sebastian Ruest, vice-president of service research with analyst firm IDC Canada in Toronto expressed the same view, citing IDC’s interaction with several leading private sector firms.

“To those who say ‘there is no skills shortage’, from where I sit I see the opposite.”

IDC, Ruest said, works with tech companies – “the Microsofts, IBMs, HPs, Accentures and CGIs of the world” – and most of them are clamouring for skilled professionals.

For instance, he said CGI and Accenture are actively seeking application developers. “You have Accenture offering $500 internally to anyone who can submit a CV for an SAP developer.”

The message from all this, the IDC analyst said, is that there is a shortage somewhere.

“I don’t know if it’s in the experience that’s available, or if we’re just not developing the [right] skills. But we’ve seen from our research that what’s available in Canada does not meet the requirements of various corporations.”

IDC, he said, is also collaborating closely with academic institutions to understand the IT courses/training they provide and how that could be made more relevant to the needs of prospective employers.

Message 2 – “Skills crunch doesn’t equal job guarantee”

“Sizzling IT Market? IT Job Skills? Shortage of IT Workers? What is that all about? At every job fair I have been to in the last year, there have been hordes of unemployed IT or former IT people looking for work. All of them have the same story – there are no jobs in the IT field – time to try something else. If there are jobs out there somewhere, employers would do well to make it clear – what skill sets are you having trouble finding? Tim Cook of Richmond Hill, Ont.

This letter is just one of scores of similar responses from unemployed or underemployed IT professionals that IT World Canada has received in response to stories we’ve carried on this topic.

It exemplifies the apparent dichotomy between what several industry surveys show and the distressing fact that a great many IT professionals aren’t in the workforce.

Pickett sought the views of the panelists on why such a contradiction exists.

At least one panelist said part of the problem could be that many people who aren’t getting jobs lack basic employability skills. The situation is no different with other professions, noted Robert Wager, program coordinator for experiential learning with the Toronto District School Board.

Some folk, he said, unfortunately lack the qualities employers are looking for – “whether that means working as a team member, being prompt, having communication skills. It could also be that they possess old world technology that doesn’t match real-world employers’ needs at a particular point.”

Wager noted that people mean many different things when they talk about a “skills shortage.”

Some use the term to refer to a skills deficiency in their workers – the fact that someone lacks the resident skills to work at an appropriate level. Others, of course, use the same phrase to mean: ‘we don’t have sufficient workers to meet workforce needs.”

Panelists stressed the importance of IT courses being geared to industry demands.

For instance, Pickett said many companies today are looking for people with application development skills. He cited IT World Canada’s 2007 Hiring Managers Report, which indicates that networking skills are much sought after.

He said specific technical qualifications in high demand include: SQL Server (41 per cent), Network Technician (40 per cent), Microsoft.Net (36 per cent); Oracle DB and Apps (28 per cent).”

Message 3: “Get real – gear tech courses to corporate needs”

The incredible pace of change within the IT industry makes it very difficult to match IT course curricula with real world needs, according to Mau

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