ICTC calls for creation of national internship and mentorship programs

The Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) is calling for the creation of a national internship program and a national mentorship program with small businesses playing an integral part of boosting Canada’s digital skills.

The not-for-profit interest group submitted their proposal to the federal government’s digital economy consultation on the last day of submissions, July 12. It outlines several challenges Canada’s workforce faces in building a world-class digital skill set. One of those is the disconnect between the skills industry needs and the training actually provided at post-secondary institutions.

Colleges and universities just don’t get technical enough with their education, says Paul Swinwood, president of ICTC.

“They are teaching knowledge with a bit of technical, and companies are looking for technical with a bit of knowledge,” he says. “There statement is ‘I want someone that can hit the ground running.'”

National programs for internships and mentorships for young Canadians may hold the answer, Swinwood adds. ICTC has seen similar initiatives work wonders for immigrants looking to land that critical first job in Canada. It’s now time for that opportunity to be enjoyed by young Canadians, not just new Canadians.

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“We need to figure out how to get a national internship program so someone coming out of university in Nova Scotia can actually find an internship in Manitoba,” he says. “It’s difficult for a young person to find these opportunities. We need a clearing house that actually does those things.”

The national programs concept received some conditional support with education-sector and private-sector contacts sought out by ITBusiness.ca. Though the details of such a program need to be laid before others commit to it, potential stakeholders seem to agree it would be a good way to address the digital skills shortfall.

The programs “could be very useful in bridging the gap between education and industry,” says Evan Weaver, chair of the school of computer studies at Seneca College. “The mentorship that comes with supervising a co-op student or a research student is one of the reasons our co-op programs and research programs work so well for our students.”

Toronto-based Seneca runs co-op programs that see students do paid work at outside companies, and research programs where students work on projects of interest with an outside party. The programs produce more work-ready graduates and professionals with very specific skill sets, he says.

National programs also receive cautious support from Corinne Pohlmann, vice-president of national affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses. CFIB often gets requests from small businesses looking to tap internship talent.

“It’s often difficult to find the right match between a placement and a small company,” she says. “We do what we can to bring those matches together.”

Some business owners hesitate to bring interns on board because it may require taking time to train them. That’s why finding a good match between an employer and an intern is so important, she says.

ICTC currently operates a federal-government funded program that encourages employment at small firms across Canada. Career Focus has placed more than 1,000 interns over the past decade. It covers one-third of an intern’s first-year salary up to $10,000. In the past year, 160 interns have been placed – all of them under the age of 30 with a post-secondary diploma or degree in the ICT field.

About 90 per cent of the interns successfully complete their internships, Swinwood says. The vast majority go on to full-time employment with the company, or find a better job somewhere else.

“We’ve built a network of SMBs across the country that need people and are looking for specific skill sets,” he says. “I can see us becoming a focal point for SMBs.”

ICTC could use that program as a model and act as facilitator for larger national programs, Swinwood says. One of the first efforts of such a program would be to bring listings from multiple Web-based job search organizations under one umbrella.

“Their measurement of success is placements,” he says. “If we can help them with placements, and help them with visibility, we can see a win-win situation.”

Funding is an obvious question raised by the prospect of two new national programs with a broad scope and across various sectors. Swinwood isn’t able to put a dollar value on the programs yet.

But money spent on such programs would be money well spent, Weaver says.

“The good news is that in terms of bang-for-the-buck, a given amount of money goes further here than in most ways it could be spent,” he says. “Students and graduate interns are generally paid far below market price yet have ‘almost ready for market’ skills to offer, and companies often need only some help in paying for these people, not the full ticket.”

The federal government will review submissions collected during the consultation process over the rest of the summer. A report is expected when Parliament resumes session in the fall.

ICTC’s Career Focus program is currently capped for the year. More funding will be available April 1, 2011.

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