Canadian IT jobs market heats up as employers prepare to meet talent crunch

Canadian employers are being squeezed by a tech talent crunch…from both sides.

Just as a mad rush to get on the Web 2.0 bandwagon is making .Net developers fresh out of school disappear like taxis on a rainy day, the impending retirement of baby boomers is heralding a drought in the pool of programmers skilled in legacy language such as COBOL.

And this is happening at a time when mainframe installation projects are growing by at least five per cent each year.

CIO’s are under a lot of stress to fill these positions but there appears to be little relief in sight, according to technology experts and hiring specialists.

Demand for Web development skills in Java, Oracle, SQL Server and .Net Framework has actually grown by as much as 30 per cent over the last 12 months estimates Patrick Sullivan, CEO of Workopolis.com, a Canadian job search firm.

.Net skills are particularly in high demand because the software is a key component of the ubiquitous Microsoft Windows operating system used by most new Windows-based Web applications

“Company officials are constantly telling us they need to be swift in making the right offer to a potential candidate or they lose that person very quickly to another employer,” said Sullivan.

Unfortunately, Canadian universities and tech schools are unable to feed the demand. “Sometime after the tech-bust of 2000, a lot of parents dissuaded their kids from taking IT courses.”

Indeed many industry insiders have complained that IT courses need a makeover to make them attractive to students again.

This is an urgently required to fill an estimated 89,000 new jobs expected to crop up over the net three to five years.

The speed in the pace of Web 2.0 technology adoption is a big factor in the rising demand for Web application and infrastructure development talent, according to Sullivan.

For instance, in a single day last week, no less than 279 positions for project managers, 159 spots for systems administrators, 221 openings for systems analysts and 192 for quality assurance professionals were listed on Workopolis.com, he said.

People with skills in Websphere, SAP, Tivoli and Citrix have also become difficult to find as local demand for IT professionals jumped by at least 18 per cent last year over 2006, according to a report from Sapphire Technologies Canada, a Toronto-based IT staffing company.

“Competition for skilled staff has become very stiff and many SMBs are finding it hard to keep up with larger companies that have more financial resources,” said John Reid, president and co-chair of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA).

Many employers are looking for individuals with expertise in infrastructure security, public safety technology, he said.

“High-end IT skills necessary for defined specific application projects involving PeopleSoft and Oracle databases are also becoming critical,” Reid said.

Proficiency with collaboration and Web tools is highly sought after in today’s job market, according to Greg Lane, chair of the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS), a nation-wide organization of IT professionals.

“Anything that has to do with collaboration and developing Websites is hot today,” he said.

The demand is being fueled by the rising adoption of new collaboration tools based on Microsoft’s Office SharePoint Server 2007, Lane said.

“More and more companies want to use SharePoint to provide remote employees online collaboration capabilities or to set up blogs and wikis aimed at internal and external clients.”

But, according to Lane, while young IT professionals may be technically proficient in these new tools, not a few employers have expressed frustration finding candidates that have adequate “business savvy.”

“Many CIOs are saying they need candidates with some business acumen because eventually these developers will need to engage in conversation with executives to explain their projects.”

He said employers put a high premium on IT professionals who “don’t only know how to make a technology work, but can also explain how it will enable business.”

But the reality is that young professionals often have not had enough time to develop such skills, he said.

The situation in the IT arena appears to be running contrary to the general employment trend.

Overall in Canada, 14,900 jobs were lost bumping the unemployment rate to 6.1 per cent in March, as in excess of 1.1 million Canadians sought employment, according to Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey.

The exact opposite appears to be happening in the technology sector.

A recent survey of local firms conducted by online job search site Monster.ca indicated that only 10 per cent of companies intend to cut their labour force, while around 93 per cent plan to hire this year.

“Certainly this would represent the IT sector as many companies are telling us they are having difficulty acquiring and retaining talent,” said Robert Waghorn, communications manager for Monster.ca.

Recruitment in natural and applied sciences – including IT jobs – showed a gain of 22 points in the first quarter of 2008, according to Monster.ca.

As the existing IT workforce of baby boomers – those born from 1946 to 1964 during a spike in birthrates after World War II – march off to retirement, many mainframe installations run the risk of being abandoned.

Even as mainframe projects continue to grow at five per cent each year, the supply of programmers familiar with COBOL is dwindling, according to a report from Deloitte Canada.

One of the biggest challenges facing companies in 2008 is how to manage legacy talent, said CIPS’s Lane. “This is another crunch…squeezing CIOs from the other side.”

To attract and retain new and existing talent, employers have to rethink their hiring and talent management practices, he said.

“With today’s young developers money is not always that important. It plays a big part, but employees want other things too.”

For instance, Generation X (individuals born between 1965 and 1982) and Gen Y (born from around 1983 to 1997) employees are looking for more work-life balance, according to Waghorn of Monster.ca.

He suggests that companies highlight benefits such as flexible work schedules, telework opportunities, or more vacation days.

Many employees will also be planning for parenthood or are increasingly looking forward to taking care of aging parents. Healthcare benefits that take these family members into account will be a great selling point, Waghorn said.

Career development is vital to young IT talent, according to Sullivan of Workopolis.

Prospective employers can entice young developers with opportunities to work on new technology or challenging assignments that will eventually boost their skills and profile, he said.

Training programs and opportunities to branch out into other fields or responsibilities also serve as an effective incentive, Sullivan added.

Companies must promote themselves as progressive workplaces where developers will be interacting with vibrant people and engaging in interesting projects.

Sullivan suggests hunting for talent where it resides…on the Net. “Don’t limit yourself to newspaper ads, go online. Use blogs, wikis and online communities to promote your firm and your job postings.”

If you play your cards right, he says, Web 2.0 tools could be your best recruitment weapon.

“The key is to boost your company image as an innovative and progressive workplace. Generation Y is probably the most connected generation, so word that you’re a great employer can spread around fast.”

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