Ottawa group adopts creative approach to help jobless IT professionals

If the prophet doesn’t come to the mountain, lead the mountain to the prophet — that’s the new approach adopted by Ottawa Talent Initiative (OTI) to help unemployed technology workers in the Ottawa area find work.

OTI is a grass roots organization comprised of out-of-work volunteers and community members.

As part of a new strategy, OTI plans to take groups of its members to visit the 1,700 technology employers in the area to discover where their businesses are heading, and get a sense of their current and future HR needs. “We want to meet employers’ needs by putting them first,” said OTI executive director Gary Davis.

He said once OTI knows what an employer is looking for it could recommend people who fit the bill.

This strategy shift was discussed in great detail at an OTI-organized forum this week.

Despite snowy conditions, around 300 people attended Tuesday’s second-annual Ottawa Talent Forum and were updated on OTI’s accomplishments in the past year, its future plans and, happenings in the Ottawa high-tech sector since the previous forum.

According to the group, between 5,000 and 15,000 former hi-tech workers in the Ottawa-Gatineau region are either unemployed, or working in low-paying fields unrelated to IT.

Davis said OTI held the forum “to help tech people get together and figure out how to help themselves,” rather than asking how government or industry could alleviate the unemployment situation. “Overall, we want to reach out to the tech people who are unemployed and don’t know about the opportunity.”

At this year’s forum, speakers outlined changes to OTI’s focus since it released an 18-point Community Action Plan (CAP) last May. One significant change had to do with how OTI relates to employers, Davis said.

For instance, he said, a major CAP suggestion had to do with the launch of a “Grow Jobs in Ottawa” forum. This forum, it was believed, would help potential tech employers explain to laid-off workers what skills are in demand, helping them identify jobs for which they may be qualified. However, OTI has now “turned that recommendation on its ear” and approached the issue of employer engagement from the opposite angle, Davis said.

The main reason for this, he said, is employers are way too busy to be taking time out to attend forums. “I’ve been in quite a few tech companies, and I have seen that people are literally running around. If we ask them to come out and sit in on a forum, they will be asking themselves: ‘What is in it for us?’” So OTI has come up with the idea of taking its members to visit area employers.

Davis said OTI will also try to connect with organizations that are not in the IT sector — such as the federal government and manufacturing firms — but have available IT positions. “It is less straight forward (to approach non-tech firms) than to go to technology companies,” he said. “It is a bit of a different ball game but that is where some people want to go so we need to focus on building relationships with those companies as well.”

However, Sandra Lifshitz, who spent seven years at Nortel as a real-time embedded systems software designer before losing her job in the summer of 2001, said she doesn’t understand how promoting individual candidates to employers does much for unemployed tech workers in Ottawa as a whole. “When it comes to promoting OTI members to employers, it doesn’t help the community.”

She noted that OTI is not the only organization taking this approach. “People at (other job help centres in the area) are also trying (it). At the end of the day, there will be the same number of positions available to the same amount of job seekers.”

Lifshitz, who did not attend the forum, said she would instead like to see more internship/co-op programs, “so we can be considered for positions we can’t apply for today …We need similar programs to get into areas that are not strictly high-tech.”

Davis said the OTI would continue to help former tech workers deal with the emotional impact of layoffs by providing opportunities for people to exercise their skills through volunteer assignments.

The impact of job-loss is dramatic, he said. “Your skills diminish because technology moves so fast…and there is an emotional wear and tear on people’s self-esteem, on their families and on their finances.”

Davis said he often sees signs of anger and withdrawal in some people who come into OTI’s Action Centre. “I appreciate that’s where (they) are, but if (they) go to an employer like that, (they) wouldn’t get hired in 100 years.”

According to Davis, there are signs the IT job market is picking up.

“Even back when we first got on this (initiative), there wasn’t much happening in terms of getting jobs. But in July, August and September, things started picking up,” he said, adding that all but two members of OTI’s steering committee are now employed. “We are losing people here every day,” which is part of the ultimate goal, he said. Of those back in the workforce, most have gone back into technology, and both full-time and contract work is available, he said.

Lifshitz was also cautiously optimistic about the job market. “It looks better. There are some (full-time) jobs and some contracts available. (But) there are also a lot of people out there looking or waiting. I think there’s still a huge imbalance.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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