Canada’s IT skills shortage persists despite recession, layoffs

Despite a cruel economy that’s resulted in scores of layoffs across North America, Microsoft’s Canadian partners, who specialize in serving small businesses, are still challenged by an IT skills shortage, according to a new survey.

Aside from the recession, a shortage of skilled IT staff was cited as the top future challenge by Microsoft’s small business specialist certified partners in Canada. Of the more than 600 partners across the country, 37 per cent worried about the lack of skilled IT workers.

The problem isn’t a lack of general IT workers in the market, but the unfulfilled need of many companies for very specific IT skill sets, says Corinne Sharp, director of Canadian reseller channel with Microsoft Canada.

“There’s not as much of a need for ‘keep the lights on’ IT staff as for the more specialized skills,” she says. This “is where we’re seeing gaps in the business.”

The skills shortage is nothing new to Microsoft partners. There is even a Web site – – dedicated to connecting partners to the IT workers with the right skills.

The IT industry layoffs story is spelled out in IT World Canada’s Layoff Watch. In January, thousands of workers were kicked to the curb as tech companies rushed to cut costs. To list a few examples, EMC fired 2,400 workers, Lenovo 2,500, and Motorola 4,000.  

“It’s a bit of an enigma,” says Ricky Mak, an SMB and channels research analyst with IDC Canada. “We’ve heard about all the layoffs across the industry, it’s strange to hear about a shortage.”

But Microsoft partners aren’t the only ones experiencing the impact of this paradox.

Other small businesses in the tech sector are also searching out hard-to-find specialized skills. Markham, Ont.-based Fastek International Inc. is an IT systems integration company shares the predicament.

“We would get lots of résumés, but the skills weren’t there,” says Ashraf Ali, president of Fastek. “We’re not your typical IT company, we’re in the building automation domain.”

Fastek was seeking employees with a combination of IT and engineering skills, he adds. But since the recession has hit, business has slowed and the company is no longer looking to hire.

Channel partners are scrambling to find IT workers with very specific skill sets to support the needs of their clients, says Paul Edwards, the director of SMB & channels research at IDC Canada.

“SMB clients are expecting that type of skill specialization from their partners and not all of them can support that at this time,” he says. “You get different waves in the market where certain skills are required more than others.”

Canadian Microsoft partners are also looking to tap technology as a cost-savings mechanism during the recession. Virtualization was the most popular choice to help tighten the purse strings, with 39 per cent of survey respondents naming it.

Server consolidation was a popular cost-savings strategy before the economic downturn and the recession has strengthened that trend, says Microsoft’s Corinne Sharp. Not only does it cost less in terms of hardware, but fewer staff are needed to maintain servers and companies can reduce time spent on this.

Associated people costs avoided are definite savings for an organization, she says.

Top priorities among surveyed partners were to generate new sales and marketing materials (55 per cent), and to establish new partnerships (44 per cent). Those are also areas where Microsoft is hoping to lend a hand.

“We often run local and international events [during which] they have that opportunity to connect with other partners,” Sharp says. “We have ready-to-go marketing materials free for our partner community.”

Fastek is also looking to forge new alliances to help weather the economic storm. It has already signed a new distributor agreement with a U.S. company that will see its products sold south of the border, while Fastek will reciprocate by selling the American products in Canada.

“Generate more sales, that’s our top priority,” Ali says. “Not so much in creating new marketing materials, but in using whatever products we have already.”

Microsoft partners are likely in a reactive mode to the tough economy at the moment, Edwards says. The community will be looking to its vendor, Microsoft, to help them invest in marketing campaigns.

Small business specialists also anticipate an increase in the number of mobile workers in 2009. Almost three-quarters agreed that would be the case.

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