Information technology skills shortage requires new breed of worker

Information technology skills shortage requires new breed of worker
Gerald Mak, 20, , Dev Singh, 22 and George Phu, 23, are among the new breed of information and communications technology students who have tech and business skills.

Next generation IT workers Gerald Mak, 20, (left), Dev Singh, 22 and George Phu, 23, are among the new breed of information and communications technology students who have tech and business skills.

Things have changed since Paul Swinwood got into information technology as a young man.

Gone are the days of hundreds of computer programmers locked in a room writing code and swigging from a two-litre bottle of Coke for hours on end.

“We didn’t need to know the company’s business or anything like that. We just needed to know how to code and we wrote the code,” says Swinwood, now president of the Information and Communications Technology Council.

But now, employers are looking for ICT (information and communication technologies) professionals who marry technical expertise with softer business skills such as communications, graphic design and marketing.

“We’re seeing the IT people having to now understand the business,” says Swinwood. “The commodity business of actually writing the code, that can be done anywhere in the world.”

A recent study from the council indicates Canada is facing an “alarming” shortage of information and communications technology labour over the next five years. In Ontario alone, about 51,000 ICT jobs will need to be filled in the next five years, says Swinwood. Immigrants and new graduates will be able to fill 60 to 70 per cent of those positions, he adds.

“What we are seeing is the evolution of the ICT sector in Canada,” says Swinwood. “Overall we’re seeing a skill shortage in many of the ICT occupations that we track.”

A persistent mismatch between skills employers need and those available in the labour pool has created a need for the ICT sector to rebrand itself and attract a more diverse workforce with a broader skill set.

“(We need) systemic change at the educational system, at the recruiting system, at the implementation system ... to reflect a more diverse culture,” says Swinwood.

Onah Osemeke, 23, is a poster child for the new wave of ICT workers. One of the only women in her business technology management program at Ryerson University, Osemeke already has a job lined up for after graduation this spring.

Ryerson’s year-old business technology management program – attached to the Bachelor of Commerce – is offered at several universities across Canada with nine more currently in discussions to implement it. The program is part the push to produce well-rounded graduates prepared to work in new types of IT positions.

“I’ve always liked technology but I didn’t want to focus on just that,” says Osemeke, who plans to work in technology consulting. “I didn’t want to just be known as a tech support person.”

Currently, only about 25 per cent of the 600,000 ICT workers in Canada are women.

“Women are traditionally under-represented,” says Deborah Harrop, a senior manager, IT service delivery information management for the Workers’ Compensation Board in Alberta.

Harrop is involved with Canada’s Association of IT Professionals ‘Women in IT’ program, which works to promote IT as a career for young women and change the negative perceptions high school girls have about the sector.

“ICT is a really rewarding place for women,” says Harrop. “There are very few of us that sit in front of a computer all day.”

Along with increasing the proportion of female ICT workers, Canadian companies will have to leverage foreign talent, and Canadians currently working abroad, to boost the workforce.

“Certainly, there is a labour shortage coming up,” says Karen Gallant, director of talent networks for Communitech, the association that represents technology companies in Waterloo Region. “We’re competing globally for talent.”

In Waterloo Region alone, there are currently 2,000 job openings in the tech sector. Communitech, which represents 600 companies, works to keep recent graduates in the region and recruits heavily among Canadians who have left for the lucrative jobs and exclusive lifestyle of Silicon Valley.

Changes to immigration policy, including off-loading of responsibility for sector-specific immigration from the federal to the provincial governments, has hampered companies’ ability to quickly recruit foreign talent, explains Swinwood.

The council has developed language training programs to help foreign trained IT professionals perfect the sector-specific English or French skills they need to describe their skill set and experience, and find jobs.

“Up to 50 per cent of the people we’re going to need are going to have to come from outside our school system,” says Swinwood.

Record news services

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