IGNITEing the IT fire in Aboriginal youth

Information Technology (IT) is sometimes thought of as “the great leveller”, but a recent Labour Market Report by the Canadian Software Human Resource Council (SHRC) contradicts that notion.

Its analysis of Canadian IT worker employment over the past four years reveals a great imbalance. The April 2005 report depicts a predominantly male (78 per cent) IT workforce, with three-quarters hailing from Central Canada (Ontario and Quebec).

IBM Canada, in some small way, is trying to rectify this imbalance, by reaching out to a segment of the population left behind by the IT juggernaut – Aboriginal communities.

As part of this initiative, on Wednesday, the company announced several strategies and programs.

One of these is series of three-day camps for Aboriginal youth appropriately named IGNITE – short for IGniting Interest in Technology and Engineering.

“The goals are to create a positive experience for Aboriginal boys and girls at a critical point in their educational evolution,” said John Longbottom, the IBM Canada executive in charge of Aboriginal strategy. “We want to get them excited about maths and sciences so they [are] positioned for IT careers over the longer term.”

Longbottom hopes these camps will not only encourage Aboriginal youth to pursue technology-related careers, but – even more fundamentally – would convince them to stay in school.

IGNITE is patterned on another IBM camp dubbed EXITE (Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) that encourages girls to pursue IT careers.

According to IBM, IGNITE builds on elements of EXITE but adds cultural components to make it more appropriate to an Aboriginal demographic – elements such as the presence of an elder, as well as mentors from Aboriginal communities.

Camp events will be conducted by a team of IBM coaches and external Aboriginal groups.

Longbottom described some camp highlights. They include exposure to robotics, Web design workshops, and opportunities to take a PC apart, and then put it back together. In addition, the camp will instruct participants on how to do presentations using tools like Power Point. They will do a final presentation on their career aspirations.

The camps train Aboriginal youth on the use of technology to deal with real world issues, said Longbottom.

Many in the Aborginal community are happy with IBM Canada’s initiatives. One of them is John Bernard, president and CEO of Ottawa-based Donna Cona Inc., Canada’s largest Aboriginal-owned technology company. “Our company believes education is critical for Aboriginal youth to develop personally and professionally,” said Bernard, who is also a member of the Madawaska First Nation community in New Brunswick.

Donna Cona, he said, is always looking for talented Aboriginal men and women to fill various technical and business roles but finds it difficult to locate individuals with the required IT skills and experience.

He said, in many cases, the steep cost of education is an obstacle for Aboriginal youth wanting to pursue a career in technology, but added that Donna Cona offers several scholarships to help students overcome that barrier. Donna Cona and other partners are helping to select appropriate participants for the IBM camps – individuals who would most benefit from the training offered.

IGNITE camps will be held in Edmonton from August 10 to 12 and in Vancouver from August 23 to 25. The number of participants will be limited to 35 to in order to make them more intimate.

Longbottom hopes to offer six more camps later this year with an initial focus on areas with a large Aboriginal population. Eventually camps will be held in the east in cities like Ottawa, Halifax and Toronto.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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