IT talent shortage “hurting” most Canadian companies

Very few opportunities for advancing into senior IT positions is a key factor that’s turning off many Canadians from pursuing a career in technology, say industry insiders.

The resulting talent drought, they note, is significantly hurting most local companies.

Government and industry leaders who are slow to realize the value of nurturing IT talent only have themselves to blame for the severe tech labour crunch, panel speakers said on Monday at the opening of the Toronto Tech Week convention.

“We have talent shortage – not because jobs are going away due to off-shoring,” said David Ticoll, chair of the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC).

Ottawa-based ICTC is a non-profit sector council dedicated to creating a strong and highly-educated Canadian information and communications technology (ICT) industry and workforce.

“It’s not that salaries are low, as surveys indicate pay is getting better…We’re just not good at building national champions,” said Ticoll who is also research fellow at the Knowledge Media Design Institute at the University of Toronto.

The ICTC chair was part of a four-person panel that discussed the Canadian and Ontario ICT job market in a presentation titled: State of the Nation/Jobs 2.0 – Action Agenda for Canada’s Talent Crisis.

Other panelists were: Donna Henderson, principal of Toronto online media ad agency Henderson Bas; Brent Lowe-Bernie, president of Comscore Media Metrix, a media research firm in Toronto; and Courtney Pratt, chair and CEO of the Toronto Regional Research Alliance.

“Four years ago, I would have been talking to you about the threat of off-shoring. Today the number one concern for Canadian companies is where to find the IT talent that will help them grow their business,” said Ticoll.

He touched on IT hiring issues such as: an aging technology workforce, the “dot com bust” of the early 1990s, failure of colleges and universities to inspire enrolments into science and computer courses, and the need to fill more than 89,000 IT positions in Canada in the next three to five years.

The shortage, he said, is exacerbated by the failure of decision makers in many organizations to realize the critical importance of a trained IT workforce.

Ticoll spoke of the gnawing concern of many ICT workers that “there’s not much future in it for them.”

He alluded to a recent random survey of Canadian CIOs, which found companies rarely consider IT people as CEO material. None of the respondents said their CEO came from IT.

Asked about the probability of their organization picking someone from IT to fill the CEO role, around 13 per cent of the executives said it is “unlikely” another 55 per cent said it is “less likely”, while 35 per cent said their company would never consider elevating someone from IT to the CEO position.

The same survey found a majority of Canadian firms rarely rotate employees working in IT positions thereby losing out on the opportunity to provide these workers with greater exposure and understanding of the company’s operation and limiting their chances of moving up in the organization.

Ticoll said such attitudes are contributing to the perception that IT careers are not rewarding. But one thing is certain: enrolment in science and technology course has been plummeting over the past seven years.

Figures indicate that in 2001 more than 60,000 students in the U.S. and 39,000 in Canada enrolled in such courses. In 2008, those numbers dropped to 40,000 for the U.S. and 22,000 for Canada.

Across the country, IT companies are also increasingly competing with other industries for the small pool of tech talent.

This is because technology has become so pervasive that IT workers are being snapped up not only by software and hardware companies, but also by financial firms, ad agencies, food and drug makers, manufacturers, and even the fashion industry. “The common complaint is not so much that they can’t find candidates with IT talent but that they’re having difficulty locating workers with the ICT skills combo they need.”

It’s unfortunate that the lack of opportunity to obtain a more rounded skills set coincides with the shift in the profile of the desired IT worker.

Ticoll said only about nine per cent of companies are looking what he calls “technical IT skills, another 13 per cent are looking for IT networking skills, but 39 per cent are searching for candidates with business specific IT skills, and another 39 per cent of the firms are hiring candidates with leadership and consulting skills.

When companies think about hiring IT talent these days, it’s not just about coders and programmers, according to Henderson of the ad firm Henderson Bas.

Rather, many ad agencies are searching for networking specialists who aren’t just proficient in social networking technology and social sites such as Facebook, but are also familiar with the marketing industry.

“It’s very hard to find people in the ad industry with the desired tech skills and the candidates know it. I have to pay about 12 to 15 per cent premium on salaries,” Bas said.

Despite these realities, Henderson said, many companies in her sector are “slow to adopt” technology.

She said various surveys point to the growth of online and social media but many organizations stick to producing ads mainly for print and TV “because they either don’t understand the technology or are afraid of it.”

Bernie of Comscore agrees: “Many people at the top are still operating within the old paradigm.”

“There needs to be a changing of the guard…for organization to realize the size of the opportunity before them.”

Pratt of the Toronto Regional research Alliance said this resistance to change can be seen in the reluctance of larger enterprise to embrace social networking trends.

For example, he said, nearly 64 per cent of North American companies outside the Fortune 500 category do not have their own wiki, 64 per cent are not involved in blogging activities, and 66 per cent do not send out RSS feeds.

Fortunately, Pratt said, Canadian firms appear to be “more sensitive to the use of Web 2.0 technology” than their counterparts south of the border.

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