Forum to address low enrollments in IT college programs

Most industry experts would agree enrollment in IT college and university programs has steadily declined over the last few years. But when it comes to the reasons for this drop and its implications, not everyone sees eye to eye.

This week organizers of the National Information Technology Human Resources Forum (NITHRF) held last November, said they plan to offer more sessions this May for educational and industry players eager to resolve issues facing the sector.

The first forum included 120 participants, 65 from industry and 55 deans and IT faculty directors. Out of that initial meeting came the idea of forming the IT Affinity Group, a national group of deans and directors of IT from various colleges across Canada whose goal it was to meet and discuss common problems, particularly decreased enrollment.

Morris Uremovich, dean of the School of Advanced Technology at Algonquin College in Ottawa and chair of the IT Affinity Group, said Algonquin has experienced a 50-per-cent enrollment drop for IT-related programs over the last three years. “I think that’s not out of line with the rest of Ontario,” he said.

Declining enrollment, said Uremovich, creates a “vicious circle” for educational institutions. He noted that colleges are very responsive to the industry and if they stop attracting large student numbers…they tend to cancel programs, which means fewer graduates. “But if business and industry, somewhere down road, have a problem meeting their own human resources needs,” it will be difficult for colleges to ramp up again, Uremovich said.

He said attendees at the previous forum were asked for their candid views upfront. “We said…if we shouldn’t be in the business, let us know. We don’t want to keep programs running that won’t be helpful. But we (were) told we should try to keep them going and that we will need grads because there are concerns that two or three years down the road talent may not be there.”

Uremovich said employment prospects are good for new graduates of IT programs. “I would think 60 to 70 per cent of students that graduate probably find employment,” he said, adding that the best outlook for students is probably in the hardware or networking environment, with an 80 per cent employment rate after graduation. Software development graduates would find themselves on the lower end of this spectrum, he said.

Despite decent job prospects, enrollments have steadily declined, with the biggest drop, at least at Algonquin, in the software development program. Uremovich said this might have something to do with fears of offshore outsourcing. “There is still a significant amount (of software development) that takes place in Ottawa, but if you look at the news and hear about all that activity that has moved offshore, the perception is that it is not a good area to get into.”

But John O’Grady, partner at research firm Prism Economics and Analysis, said he doesn’t think the fear of losing one’s job as part of an offshore outsourcing contract has as much to do with low enrollment numbers as does the view that the IT labour market is still weak. “The only place where offshore outsourcing would have any impact that’s discernable is on what you might call entry-level, help desk jobs and maintenance of legacy systems and lower-level coding and programming. The demand for people in those jobs will continue to be weak.”

In a press release NITHRF organizers also said there is an impending shortage expected in the next 10 years due to the retirement of the baby boomer generation, and if new students do not enroll in college IT programs, employers will be left wondering where they will find their future labour force.

However, O’Grady said retirement will probably not cause a skills shortage. “There might be some effect, but the IT workforce is generally younger than the workforce as a whole so the demographic factors are not going to have an impact on IT like they will on other segments of the labour force.”

There are indications the IT labour market situation is improving, O’Grady said. After deteriorating rapidly in 2000 and “staying in the dumpster for a while…last fall when the forum took place, most indicators (showed) the labour market was still difficult from the point of view of people seeking jobs, especially first-time jobs.”

Now the IT industry is starting to pick up. “The computer industry, at least on the hardware side, is operating at about an 80 per cent capacity, which is comparatively high when you look at the overall (manufacturing) average of 85 per cent. The hardware side can no longer be said to be in a recession.” This is a plus for IT employment, since many major employers are on the hardware side, he said.

The expected downturn after the appreciation of the Canadian dollar has not materialized due to improvements in the U.S. economy, which means companies that had previously postponed investments in IT are now saying they will begin to spend again, O’Grady said. This too, is good news for IT job seekers, he said, as “a lot of employment is related to investment in new IT.”

Collectively, these factors make the labour market look somewhat better than three months ago and much better than a year ago, which makes O’Grady optimistic about college enrollments. “My guess is in about a year we will see some pickup in enrollments both for new entrants and people who are upgrading their skills.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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