ICT skills shortage set to worsen as pipeline slows down and workers retire

Despite the looming threat of recession, Canada still has a skills shortage in the digital economy, according to the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), and we’re not training enough people to fill the growing gap.

A new ICTC report, Digital Economy Supply: Canada’s Post-Secondary Education Stream, confirms the pipeline that produces workers who know how to leverage modern technologies is not keeping up with demand. While this is an issue that’s important for all players in the digital economy, it should be of particular concern to CIOs who are leading the digital transformation of their organizations. This skills shortage as recent technology developments such as the Internet of Things, social, mobile, analytics and the cloud are all affecting all sectors and enterprises of the Canadian economy.

And not only is the pipeline not getting filled, there is already a skills shortage, the report says, and ICT enrollment decreased gradually every year for seven consecutive years since 2001, following the collapse of the dot-com bubble. This situation will continue to deteriorate unless something is done, the ICTC says, as the anticipated cumulative demand is for 182,000 ICT skilled workers by 2019.

ICT graduates are potentially the biggest source of incoming supply of Canada’s ICT workforce, as they are trained to acquire the knowledge and skills required for the technical nature of ICT work. However, not all grads become ICT pros. In 2015, more than 527,000 students will be graduating from the post- secondary education system in Canada. Six per cent of them are ICT graduates, with 12,800 graduating from universities and 16,300 graduating from colleges. The good news is that the number of ICT graduates has been in an upward trajectory again since 2009.

Despite more grads slated to come out of school with ICT skills, not only are there still not enough, but they may not have the right skills, and not all grads are job-ready, as their skills are foundational and not job specific. There still remains some difference between what industry looks for in terms of skills and what they are getting among job applicants, especially among the new graduates, the ICTC report says, and organizations are often looking an ideal blend of technical and interpersonal skills.

These soft skills are in short supply. ICTC’s research indicates that finding the desired interpersonal skills such as initiative-taking, communications, motivation, eagerness to learn and being team-oriented is a big challenge. Even if a candidate is has these skills, the employer then turns attention to getting the right cultural fit, which adds to the challenge. This echoes similar findings of a recent CompTIA report.

Canada’s post-secondary education system alone will not be able to fill the talent supply requirements of the digital economy, which will amplify the shortage as well as the skills mismatch. Adding to the problem is the number of ICT professionals aged 55 and above has nearly quadrupled in the last 15 years. Eleven per cent of Canada’s current ICT workforce are above the age of 55, compared to four per cent in 2001. This warrants advanced HR planning and hiring to accommodate business growth as replacement of retiring professionals.

And as retirees leave the workforce and create ICT openings, youth are not opting for ICT careers, the report says, leaving a void that could potentially limit Canada’s competitiveness before long. There is a strong need to encourage students to pursue post-secondary education in ICT fields of studies and help them obtain employment and benefit from the low joblessness as well as higher salaries offered to ICT professionals.

The ICTC says there are a number of things that need to be done to address the skills shortage, both now and in the future:

  • All aspects of the skills mismatched must be addressed, including the cyclical gap between demand and supply
  • There needs to be a collaborative focus on shifting to improve the skills of the workforce with a strategy that is aligned with economic and digital strategies crucial for Canada’s competitive strength
  • More programs to support on-the-job training through mechanisms such as wage subsidies need to be created to improve the job-readiness of youth or enable nearly qualified candidates to acquire necessary work-related skills
  • There also needs to be more programs that are targeted at youth, as early as elementary school, to make them aware of course and career options in ICT
  • The industry must lend its support in the design and delivery of responsive and diversified programs that focus on applied learning. Industry-educator partnerships, internships, co-op, and placement programs are mechanisms by which the matching of skills with jobs can be strengthened.
  • Employers must invest in and offer learning opportunities to their workforce

Overall, ICTC says a conducive policy environment is needed for industry to finance and provide skills training, and making it compulsory to have employer representation on the governing boards and establishing employer advisory committees for all academic programs will accelerate the renewal of curriculum so it reflects employer expectations.

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Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has written thousands of words for print and pixel in publications across North America. His areas of interest and expertise include software, enterprise and networking technology, memory systems, green energy, sustainable transportation, and research and education. His articles have been published by EE Times, SolarEnergy.Net, Network Computing, InformationWeek, Computing Canada, Computer Dealer News, Toronto Business Times and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.

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