Apply within: IT work can still be found in Canada

After working as a business analyst in Toronto’s financial sector for over 30 years, John (who asked that only his first name be used), who now does contract work in quality assurance, says he wishes he had never pursued a career in IT. He said there are too many cowboys in the development field and there is often a “sweat shop mentality” among workers.

His simple answer to anyone looking for a job in information technology, however, is that yes, there are jobs to be found in Canada. But he said this is a very simplistic view of the situation.

“It leaves out so much and is so superficial a statement that, as a result, it is a gross distortion and a gross misrepresentation of the reality of the situation,” John said. “It is so typical of anyone in the corporate world, especially in IT. They think at the superficial level and they don’t think beyond that.”

Those doing the hiring for IT jobs today are perfectionists, John said, and if a candidate doesn’t have exactly what a company is looking for, they are unwilling to spend the time or money involved in training.

John is not the only one who’s noticed. According to other industry insiders, companies are looking for employees with a blended background — workers who can handle the fast pace of the business world and the complexity of high-tech machinery. To help future techies prepare for employment, schools across the country are designing their curriculum models to make sure students will be successful after graduation.

Back to school

McMaster University in Hamilton started an e-business stream specialization in its MBA about four years ago to reflect what the school was hearing “time and time again from the industry,” explained Dr. Milena Head, associate professor of information systems for McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Business and the director of McMaster’s eBusiness Research Centre.

Prior to the e-business stream, McMaster offered a course called Information Systems Specialization, but the feedback the school was getting was that the students graduating from the program were lacking the technical complement to their business knowledge.

“Yes, they knew about strategy kinds of issues and all the different aspects of business, but to really be able to manage the technology you should have some understanding of the technology too,” Head said. Giving students this mixed background was McMaster’s motivation behind offering the new e-business stream.

“We wanted to have the blend between the technology and the business, the strategy side, [and give] them some sort of foundation as to what the technology is, not the low level stuff necessarily of how to program…but [rather] what are the main technologies out there and what does the future hold?” she added.

Another way students are getting this well-rounded background is by attending both college and university, said Louise Bardswich, dean of information technology and accounting at the Humber Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto. The number of university graduates who are applying to Humber’s IT-related courses has increased recently, she added.

“Those folks tend to be very successful in getting good jobs because they have the breadth of the university background and then they get some pretty practical IT skills,” Bardswich explained.

To work within this trend and to give students more options, Humber is in the process of developing a degree program based around what skills the industry is looking for, Bardswich said. She added that standards of professional practice will play a large role in the foundation of the degree.

“We’re seeing all kinds of standards of professional practice start to bubble up basically as a reaction to people’s unhappiness with the dot-com cowboys,” Bardswich said. “Just that people [need to] understand project management, change management, standards of ethics as well. That is the big change in what we are doing.”

Since the tech industry went spiraling downhill four years ago, Bardswich said enrollment in IT programs has been “pitiful.” In what she calls its worst case scenario, Humber’s Computer Programmer and Computer Programmer Analyst courses have taken the hardest hit. “At the peak of the dot-com bubble we were bringing in 300 to 350 students into the combination of those two programs every fall,” Bardswich noted. “At this point I barely have 350 applicants for those programs for next fall.”

Although the programs are expected to admit only 80 students in September, which is significantly less than the 350 of four years ago, Bardswich said Humber has no plans to abandon the courses. As dramatic as it is, the decline is understandable because of all the negative publicity the dot-com bust received.

She added, however, that it is important for people not to lump everything in IT together.

“There’s also a bit of a drop-off in our Computer Network Science program and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there are tons of those jobs out there. Every company in the world needs technical support people,” she added.

These numbers are very troubling, not just at Humber but also across the board, said Lynda Leonard, spokesperson for the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) in Ottawa.

“This may not be a problem for where we sit currently in the marketplace. But looking at the kind of growth we are looking at and knowing how knowledge intensive this industry is, if we start to kick back even a couple of fractions of a percentage point in our growth rate, we are going to be in a situation where we are not in surplus anymore,” Leonard explained.

Since the burst, McMaster has also seen a decrease in enrollment in its e-business programs, but it also experienced a shift in the types of students who were enrolling. According to Head, more international students, primarily of Asian descent, have been entering the program while more and more Canadian students seem to be taking a different career path.

Students enrolling in McMaster’s program tend to be visa students or landed immigrants, Head said. These students may be able to understand the potential of e-commerce and e-business better than Canadian students because Asia didn’t go through the same dot-com burst that North America did. As such, they probably weren’t as jaded coming into the course.

Mix it up

Although outsourcing is becoming a mainstream corporate strategy, which means that many IT jobs from the basic programmer level up through to senior level management will be shipped to countries such as India and Ireland, there are still a “tremendous amount of IT jobs in Canada” for the candidate that brings the right mix of business and technology to the table, according to Paul Hamilton, national recruitment manager for Microsoft Canada.

The IT positions at Microsoft Canada Co. based in Mississauga, Ont. have changed less because of outsourcing and more because the complexity of the customers themselves and technical requirements have changed, said Hamilton.

He said that IT employees need to have the right mix of skills in order to “understand a customer’s real pain” and have a firm grasp of the business environment the user is performing in.

“When you think about some of the technical roles that we have, some of them require vertical expertise within a specific market segment,” Hamilton explained. “So, you would expect that they would have the right mix of technical skills as well as industry knowledge in order to provide the right solution…If you don’t have that business knowledge, if you don’t have that acumen, you probably would just focus on the linear approach to their technical problems and their technical challenges.”

When schools say enrollment in IT courses is on the decrease, Donna Morris, senior director of global talent for Adobe Systems Inc. in San Jose, says she gets nervous. Companies are always going to need great talent in IT globally, but she agrees that a blended education will be the key ingredient for success.

Students who tackle their undergraduate degree in a technical domain and then go on for their master’s in an MBA as opposed to a master’s in computer science or computer engineering would definitely benefit from the blended education when job hunting, Morris said. She noted however, that she wouldn’t want to be an advocate of everybody having to get advanced degrees, and advised that an ideal scenario would be to combine an undergraduate degree with work experience.

“Realistically, if you have too much education and not enough actual hands-on experience, [it] can be quite a transition to go into an entry level position,” she said.

Although it is fair to say that most companies won’t be inventing the technology they use, not understanding the technology could still result in ill-advised purchase and acquisition decisions, said Robert Fabian, a Toronto-based management and systems consultant.

Some level of appreciation of the technology is still required, but it is shifting toward a more business-oriented appreciation, Fabian said. The degree program being created at Humber — which he helped develop — is one example of how schools are tailoring themselves to meet the demands of the market. Toronto’s Ryerson University and Seneca College are other institutions that are molding curriculums to meet marketplace demands, he added.

“[Humber’s program] is oriented to educating students who will understand standards of practice, understand rigor, understand teamwork and understand business problems. Yes, they know something about the technology but they also have this discipline around them and that is the new ingredient,” Fabian added.

A new wrinkle

Outsourcing is definitely a fresh nuisance from a job hunter’s perspective. However, sending work overseas is not particular to IT and is something that the industry has to come to grips with, according to Rick Bunt, associate vice-president of information and communications technology and professor of computer science at the University of Saskatchewan.

The large companies are still stable, they are still employers and there is still a lot of demand locally for new technologies, Bunt explained. New companies are starting all the time and there continue to be excellent job prospects. “Everyone is trying to understand what the impact will be of this large outsourcing but I don’t think anybody really has a good handle on it yet,” he added.

Prospects also exist in the smaller companies with 10 to 40 employees that aren’t large enough to warrant outsourcing their development. “They don’t have something that they can just send off to India and receive back a product. It’s not quite that stable at this point. They are still developing the ideas and they need people close at hand to do that,” he added.

As to whether or not outsourcing is making students worry about their job prospects, Bunt is unsure. Students are always worried about post-graduate employment, regardless. He said the important message coming out of outsourcing is that it is part of a global phenomenon of trying to strike the balance of developing local skill sets and local competencies versus harsh economic realties.

“How do you balance your social conscience against your economic incentives as well as developing a local work force that can manage your enterprise?” Bunt asked. “You certainly can’t outsource everything, you can’t just have a head office with a receptionist and have all the work done somewhere else. That would simply not be an effective strategy.”

When it comes to finding a cheaper place to do business, Adobe’s Morris said this is where Canada’s struggling dollar may come in handy to the country’s IT workers. “Canada, if you look at it from a global economy, has great natural resources in [its] people….The dollar, yes it’s much stronger now, but it is still weaker from a currency view point than some of the other locations. I would say it is a good spot to still invest in terms of talent,” she noted.

Gray skies are going to clear up

There is a huge number of IT jobs available in Canada today if you know where to look, explained Microsoft Canada’s Hamilton. He said that many companies are giving their IT job roles more business sounding titles, which may throw off some high tech workers.

For instance, a business analyst role has a huge technology component that it didn’t have 10 years ago, Hamilton noted. Or there might be a position for a vertical solutions specialist that doesn’t come across as a technology position, but in fact is a technical role, he added.

“You are rarely going to see titles that are specifically technically oriented,” Hamilton said. “You are going to see a title that requires some technical business and vertical customer expertise all coupled into this one job or profile.”

It is naive to think that technology won’t be the wave of the future, said McMaster’s Head. “Yes, we have seen ups and downs in the market but I think that was probably healthy.”

Her optimism in the IT job market comes from getting past the burst bubble and realizing that e-business is not something that applies to a certain area or a certain department within an organization, but instead affects everybody in all the different functional areas, “allowing them to better communicate with each other, allowing them to better collaborate, allowing them to become more productive, more efficient, to establish stronger links with key trading partners no matter what area they are in,” she noted.

If e-business is making a comeback and starting to take over the enterprise, as Head noted, Bardswich’s belief that students in IT programs today are going to have their pick of jobs after graduation will be all the more true.

Bardswich added that this would be the perfect time to go into IT because the job market is going to consist of very few graduates and many organizations looking for employees. “For the students it is encouraging. But the industry might want to be a little bit worried.”

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