At an employer-educator forum hosted by the Ontario Trade and Investment Cen
tre in Toronto Thursday, a cross-section of Canadian economic movers explored the complicated relationship between the IT and financial sectors in Canada.
Attending the forum were IT and financial services leaders, researchers, public servants and academics. The question they tried to tackle was a basic one: how to attract more IT talent to Canada’s financial sector.
Catherine Chandler-Crichlow, executive director of Toronto Financial Services Alliance – Centre of Excellence
, said Canada does not lack technically qualified people. What it does need, however, are IT pros with the critical “soft skills” of project management, leadership and business communication.
David Wolfe, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto
, presented the findings of a Canada-wide study he conducted on economic development in 16 cities across Canada, including a look at innovation in the financial sector. He said Canada’s conservative banking industry was belatedly learning that it was nearing a “major inflection point” and needed a fresh IT strategy.
“Our financial institutions are not the greatest risk-takers and they don’t like to leap into new technologies,” he said.
Some of the backend technologies he observed in banks dated back to the 1960s, he said, noting the presence of the “infamous green screen.”
IT departments at big financial institutions are finally replacing their older systems with newer technology, he said, out of necessity. Wolfe said it was common for IT professionals working at banks to tell him their legacy system had gotten “to the point where we can’t tweak it any more.”
“It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve noticed the screens aren’t green anymore,” he added.
Wolfe said Canadian financial institutions had been particularly slow to incorporate modern technology for customers such as mobile banking platforms.
In a broader sense, said Namir Anani, President and CEO of the Information and Communications Technology Council
(ICTC) said, certain developing countries had gotten the technological jump on Canada simply by bypassing the step of landline communications and going straight to mobile.
“Many countries have leapfrogged us in terms of [mobile] adoption rates,” he said.
However, he added, when it comes to mobile, the major players in Canada have seen the writing on the wall. “Everyone sees this as a major train rolling down the track.”
Wolfe said that while there is “cross-fertilization” between the financial and IT sectors, there are still barrier to growth. He said the research he conducted on IT suppliers selling to banks contradicted other studies on technology “clusters” that suggested that local demand is key to success.
In fact, he said, the “rule of thumb” in Canada was that a mid-sized software companies, for example, would have to show evidence of established markets in the U.S. before approaching a big Canadian bank for business.
On the education front, forum participants noted the paradoxical issue of an IT skills shortage at the same time that universities are lamenting the lack of opportunities for their IT graduates.
Several people said that more co-op options for students, combined with better education on IT possibilities for guidance counsellors, could help channel talented young people into some of the lesser-known IT careers in the financial sector.
Citing the example of gaming giant Ubisoft Entertainment’s massive Montreal studio, Anani said he remains confident Canada can carve out its technological niche in an increasingly competitive world.
“Continuous innovation is going to be very, very important, going forward,” he said. “I’m very optimistic.”