OTTAWA (OBJ) — Canada is running low on technicians and technologists, participants at a recent industry conference in Ottawa heard.

With perceived shortages in IT and other highly-educated industries driving more and more students to universities for degrees, ignoring the need for college-educated professions like technicians and technologists will bring about its own set of problems, conference goers heard. And not just because there’ll be no one to fix your Xerox machine when it goes down.

The inaugural TechCanada Rountable meeting, organized by the Canadian Council of Technicians and Technologists (CCTT) last week, discussed “Canada’s emerging technical skills shortage.”

In fact, said Keith Carter, national director of the Software Sector Council, Canada will face a shortage of some 1.2 million workers in the next 10 years.

“The labour pool in general is in trouble,” he said. “Not just my sector.”

For the technician and technologist shortage those at the CCTT roundtable gathered to address, two urgent needs came to the fore: getting the word out to the industry that a problem is looming, and encouraging parents, guidance counsellors and young people to enroll, and finish, college programs in the required skills.

Josh Blair, an engineer as well as the senior vice-president of human resources for Telus Corp., displayed a graph of his company’s age demographics, which likely shares characteristics with many other large Canadian employers. Fully 80 per cent of its workforce is 45 years or older, potentially retiring in five to 10 years or less.

Where can new labour be tapped, he asked? Youth, women, aboriginal Canadians, foreign-trained professionals and workers seeking career changes were mentioned. Venezuela, it seems, is also another potential source.

“Planeloads of technologists are being loaded up in Venezuela and taken to Fort McMurray,” said CCTT’s executive director Yaro Zajac. “That is desperation.”

It’s an indication of Canada’s need, and the world’s ability to meet it. “Canada is among the most desperate in the OECD,” he said.

Marketing the problem, a way to encourage enrolment in key college programs, is key, said Blair.

“We in the technology world have come to think of marketing as evil,” he said, adding it is, necessary. “We as a group want to move this forward. That common voice is so important.”

Zajac agreed. “Concepts (like the skills shortage) take a long time to get accepted,” he said. “Take climate change.”

Only repetition will work, panellists agreed. “As recently as five years ago, people were saying ‘Nah, we don’t have a problem.’ Suddenly, it has become a generally accepted truth,” Zajac said.

But while industry, educators and government may have accepted the facts, it is a whole other battle to fix the problem.

Getting more high school graduates into and out of technologist programs at Canadian colleges remains a challenge, said Seneca College dean of applied science and technology Laurel Schollen.

“We get the students in,” she said. “The dirty secret here, folks, is how many actually graduate.” At Seneca, and across Ontario, graduation rates between 50 and 60, “less than stellar” numbers, she said.

Another problem, she said, is the belief that a college education is inferior to a liberal arts degree.

“College,” said Schollen, “is considered the consolation prize.” They’re “poorly understood and have an undervalued role.”

She’s been to many career expos for high school students where college booths are almost stigmatized by students and parents in favour of university booths and their swag. “We’re not even in the room,” she said.

She put responsibility onto the industry, for constantly publishing job listings requiring degrees. Those are read by parents, the most likely influence on a young person’s career path.

“Show us the listings that say ‘technologist,’ not ‘BSc,'” she challenged the employers.

The same problem – the undervaluing of a college education – is evident in the federal government’s points system for would-be immigrants.

“How about a point system that recognizes the value of a technologist?” she asked. “The emphasis seems to be on university degrees.”

However, immigration will never solve the problem entirely, said Peter Larose, director general of the workplace partnerships directorate at HRSDC. While it may lessen the strain by up to half, productivity has to be increased for growth to occur.

“We’re not going to get 1.2 million workers through immigration,” he said. “Never, never, never, never.

“This country does a great job in attracting (immigrants),” he continued. “(But) this country does a crappy job in giving them jobs.”

Encouraging students at younger and younger ages to try college technology programs was also discussed.

“If they choose not to take maths in those early years, a whole range of choices are left off from them,” said Zajac. Industry should better market itself to young people.

“How can a young lady become interested in biotechnology, if she doesn’t know what it means?” he asked.

Other hindrances included professional accreditation programs that differ in every province.

“Mobility, given globalization, is equally important,” said Zajac.

Telus, Blair said, has “embraced” strategies to improve its labour shortage outlook, including figuring out ways to project its demand better, requiring certification for certain jobs, and better career planning for employees.

“We made the decision that we’ll pay for (certification), too,” he said.

“That said, I think . . . that if the shortage becomes severe enough, employers (industry wide) will take the route of non-certification, just to survive,” he added.

–Ottawa Business Journal

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