Prospective employers say their needs aren’t being met.

By helping Canadian students enter and flourish in IT-related careers, private sector companies are making efforts to improve the IT skills crunch – and a possible IT skills mismatch.

“From a statistics point of view, there is a shortage of potential students interested in computer science and software engineering,” said Joanna Ng, head of the IBM Toronto Lab Centre for Advanced Studies at the IBM Canada Lab.

In hosting roundtables with students, Ng discovered that the general perception of computer science is that it’s a very difficult and complex subject. The inhibitor to entry is a matter of perception, she said.

IBM hopes to attract more students to IT-related fields by catching their interest in the high school years. Four years ago, the company initiated the High School Computer Programming Competition, which takes place at IBM’s CASCON conference each year.

“The purpose of the high school competition programming contest is to break that barrier and let them experience first hand that they can solve problems and they can do it…They have to overcome their perception that it is hard and the best way to do that is to get them through the actual programming tasks and from experience say, ‘Hey, it’s not that hard and it’s not that bad,’ so the perception of fear disappears,” said Ng.

“The competition is fabulous. I wish we had more companies promoting programming and technology,” said Janice Dyke, head of the computer science department at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute in Toronto.

But attracting more students to IT-related careers only addresses the IT skills crunch. A disconnect between education and industry – what academic institutions provide and what employers need – might also be contributing to what some call an IT skills mismatch.

“The typical course that you’ll find at the college and university level is reasonably static, stagnant you could say, and changes in a very infrequent basis.

While it suits the educators and the methods that they use, it’s not suitable to what industry is looking for in terms of skill sets because industry tends to move at a much faster pace,” said Mauro Lollo, chief technology officer of Unis Lumin, an independent technology solutions integrator based in Oakville, ON.

“The education system is not moving fast enough for the private sector,” said Sebastian Ruest, vice president of Service Research at IDC Canada. “The students coming out of universities and community colleges, I’m not saying they don’t have the skills required, they just can’t be integrated fast enough into the organizations.”

Traditional academia could become more relevant by increasing the frequency of courseware adjustments and basing the changes on recommendations from councils, Lollo suggested. “That whole mechanism should probably work a little smoother and faster ideally and be a bit more regular…so you’re getting more constructive and more frequent feedback from people who are in the industry.”

While adjustments during the academic year might be difficult to accomplish, institutions could make changes on a yearly basis with the intake of new students. “You do have an opportunity to change at least first year program material,” he said. A member of the program council for Communications Engineering at Sheridan College, Lollo said changes were recently made to the program in order to reflect what is appropriate to industry right now.

Partnerships between universities and private sector companies might also ease the disconnect. “You almost have to strike some kind of deal with the private sector, where you have exclusive relationships with specific vendors or specific private sector companies so that you can create a program that supplies them with the required set of skills at the right intervals,” said Ruest.

The Cisco Networking Academy offers training to secondary and post-secondary students.

“They’ve always updated, always kept in with the newest technology. It was a constant verification and a learning curve so we would have the ability to keep up with the times,” said Pam Baldaro, vocational education lead at the Cisco Networking Academy in Manitoba. “They have the ability within their programs to put students in scenarios that reflect what’s going on in the business world. I like that because it allows the kids to see what it’s really like.”

In addition to timeliness, private sector companies can provide training that is relevant to businesses today. Cisco’s secondary school programs teach students to learn software that businesses actually use, said Baldaro. “It’s learning how to interact with teams…learning skills that allow for group work, troubleshooting, investigating, writing up proposals, a lot of that is really important for working in a company.”

But focusing too much on technical skill may enhance the skills mismatch. Technical skills are the primary focus of most programs and take up about 90 per cent of students’ time, said Lollo. “There are a couple different components to education. One is technical skills, requirements that people come out with. The second is the ability to interact in a work environment. Those tend to be two very distinct things.”

“Very few private organizations now are looking for a specific skill,” said Ruest. The private sector is looking for that “super individual” with multiple skills who has the ability to understand the distinction between the technology and business side, he explained. This includes interpersonal skills, selling, consulting and project management on top of strength and specialty.

“I think expectations have to change a little bit,” said Ruest. “The student comes out of community college or university with a specific set of skills thinking that they’ll be hired for that specific set of skills, when in fact, they are not hired for that specific set of skills…they are hired for the complete package.”

Employers look for aptitude, said Lollo. “It’s the aptitude to both learn and to be inquisitive and be somewhat tenacious. If a person is all those things and can be a self-starter, then the reality is they’ll probably have the ability to learn new technologies and skills, no matter what those might be.”

Lollo strongly supports co-op programs at the post-secondary level. “From an experience perspective, they’re excellent,” he said. “They provide both the student the exposure and they give the potential employers exposure to that individual over time.

If they do want to make an offer to a person as they graduate, then you’ve got really good exposure to that person without having to make a significant investment.”

Internship programs also train students to understand business environments, said Ruest.

“The biggest challenge is you come out of the educational system and even if you have an internship, you don’t always end up in the same environment that you would have interned at.”

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