Canada needs to create superior higher education institutions like Harvard, and parents should be willing to pay higher tuition for their children, to help address an emergency in IT labour shortage, the head of CGI Group said Thursday.

“We are currently experiencing a very real education and manpower crisis in IT,” Michael Roach, president and CEO of the $3.8 billion Montreal-based systems integrator, told the Toronto Board of Trade.

The demand for IT professionals is at a 25-year high, he said, but while there are more job openings universities and colleges are graduating fewer students in IT-related disciplines.
Between 2000 and 2005 enrolment in Canadian computer science courses dropped 70 per cent, he said. It was a time of the dot-com bubble bursting and the rise of India as an IT power.

Still, he said, computer science can offer “significant opportunities for our young people right here in Canada.”

To address this decline the industry has to take its case for the value of science, technology and related education directly to parents and students, he said, and long before they go to university.

“Frankly, we must stand at the primary and secondary (school) levels. We must demonstrate to them that by participating in the technology sector they are securing themselves a bright future in the knowledge economy.”

Canada also has to hike government spending on education, he said, which dropped from 6.2 per cent of gross domestic product to 4.6 per cent between 1995 and 2002.

“As parents, we need to be ready to invest in our children’s future by paying more in tuition fees to ensure that they are being fully equipped for success,” Roach said.

“While low tuition fees may address the availability and access to education,” he added, it does not necessarily ensure the best education. And while one can argue that little is broken in our educational system, one can as easily argue that nothing is optimized either, and as a result we’re losing ground globally.”

So Canada should create what he called “peaks of excellence” – which he defined later in an interview as institutions like MIT, Harvard and the London School of Business – “to ensure that our children not only get their fair share of the good jobs, but their fair share of the best jobs.”

During his speech he expressed admiration for the way governments, corporations and academics worked together in Ireland and India to fuel their countries’ explosive growth in IT.

But in a question and answer session with attendees, Roach complained parents discourage their children from going into technology after reading news reports about huge numbers of IT graduates pouring out of Asian schools.

Not everyone has to take computer science, he suggested at one point. “We need arts and business grads, we need project managers,” he said, arguing more money has been lost by poor project management than has been saved by hiring cheap foreign labour.

Roach catapulted his B.A. in political science from Laurentian University of Sudbury, Ont., to become president and CEO of Bell Sygma before joining CGI and rising to the top of a company with 25,000 employees in 16 countries.

But he avoided answering directly when asked in an interview after his speech if he felt Laurentian was a school of excellence.

“Today you’ve got to move beyond an undergraduate degree, in my view, to compete with the kind of talent we’re talking about,” he said.

Asked if he felt he lacked something by not going to a university like Harvard, he said, “I wish I had much more education, absolutely.”

When it was pointed out that some experts argue that increasing the cost of higher education risks putting students deep in debt when they graduate, Roach replied that there’s no better thing for a family to do than invest in education.

“We take on debt for all kinds of things that aren’t investments — for example a car loan. When I compare the two, I believe that education is something that needs to be heavily invested in, but not by government alone. By parents as well.”

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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