Big bucks and relaxed hours for boomers, more focused public- and private-sector training programs, and lots of skilled immigrants are all required to combat Canada’s long-term shortage of skilled IT workers, according to a recent report.
Although the pool of available IT workers has deepened due to recent layoffs, this temporary skills windfall will be outpaced by the coming mass retirement of greying staff, and ever-increasing demand for technical skills, said Derek Burleton, a senior economist with TD Financial Group and co-author of the report.
“Ordinarily we wouldn’t expect to see these labour shortages remain over 10 to 20 years because you do get market adjustments taking place – wages rise, individuals change their behaviour by going to school and seeking out the higher wages – but we’re saying that’s not enough. We’re going to need some additional actions undertaken,” Burleton said.
Many of the actions recommended in the TD report are already taking place, notably a “fast track” immigration process so that in-demand workers can get into Canada in as little as 48 hours, said Paul Swinwood, president of the Ottawa-based Software Human Resources Council (SHRC).
Although he is mindful about the appearance of special treatment, Swinwood said government policies need to be altered so the coming generation of young pensioners – from IT workers to plumbers – have an incentive to remain active in consulting and contract roles.
“A lot of the technical people that I’ve talked to who are looking at retirement are looking at retiring to part-time work, so one of the challenges we’ve got is putting into place a [tax] system that doesn’t penalize them for doing that. This is going to be [a concern] right across the whole employment spectrum,” Swinwood said.
Although most members of NewHeights Software Corp.’s Victoria, B.C. workforce are just starting their RRSPs, Kimberly Krenzler, the company’s director of operations, plans to be very receptive to any arrangements that keeps the firm’s more seasoned staff members in play longer.
“We’ll be more than willing to make deals in that regard, she said. “To me, the experience and knowledge that [retirement-age workers] bring to the industry is incredible, and when you have a very young workforce it’s necessary to have that offsetting experience behind you – a voice of reason, so to speak.”
For now, the economic slowdown has led to a flood of top-notch job seekers, especially from California and overseas, Krenzler said. She also speculated that once the IT industry picks up again it’s frenetic 20-something culture will have aged into a mellower, family-driven 30-something culture – making NewHeights’ pastoral, leisure-friendly Victoria location a significant recruiting bonus.
The third piece of the skills-shortage puzzle lies in training – an area that’s expanding rapidly, but not always in the right directions, Swinwood said.
“One of the things we’re seeing is a tremendous increase in the short-term training programs that colleges and universities are delivering through their Continuing Ed sections, but one of the challenges is that they avoid doing just tools training. I get phone calls every day from people who have just finished a FrontPage training program, so they’re now called ‘Web developers,’ except that they have no artistic skills, and no methodology skills, but, by God, they can code Front Page,” he said.
“This is my fortieth year in the high-tech community and I have no trouble saying that [no one] knows exactly what the coding or development technology will be six years from now,” Swinwood said. This is why education – which stresses background, fundamentals of programming and design parameters, rather than learning to use features and buttons – is crucial to understanding the applications of emerging technologies,” he passionately explained.
Based on current participation rates, the Canadian labour force will stop growing by the middle of the next decade, leading to a negative impact on Canada’s long-term growth potential, and the potential for living standards to grow in the future, Burleton said. But the good news, he added, is that it is still possible to fix it.
“The quality of the labour force is a vital component of an economy’s ability to produce – if we don’t do something there’s the risk that we’re going to fall further behind many of our international competitors. However, it’s important to note that this is not isolated to Canada. Other countries are facing the same issues. It’s just that we obviously have more control over our own destiny than do others,” he said.
“The private sector has to take a lead role, but I think the government can also play a very important role in bringing parties together and trying to influence action. Cooperation between the two can be very effective.”