Sweeping changes to education, government policy, and the private sector alike will be needed if Canada’s IT industry is to have a leading role in the rapidly evolving digital economy, according to a new report prepared by the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), with support from Microsoft Canada.

Titled “Digital Talent: Road to 2020 and Beyond,” the March 9 report outlines seven recommendations that ICTC says will be essential to nurturing Canada’s digital workforce, and ensuring it can meet the tech industry’s growing demand, with the report estimating that Canada will need 182,000 skilled IT workers by 2019.

“Unfortunately, the domestic supply of ICT graduates and workers will be insufficient to meet this demand,” the report says. “Engaging all available talent, including women, youth, immigrants, Indigenous persons and persons with disabilities, will be critical in mitigating the talent shortage. We also need to ensure that new graduates have the practical knowledge and skills they need to enter the workforce quickly and add value to Canadian businesses.”

According to the report, Canada’s digital economy currently employs approximately 1.15 million workers, contributes $74 billion annually to the national GDP, and has grown at more than four times the rate of the overall economy during the last two years.

Yet even those numbers are a drop in the bucket compared to the benefits gained when applying digital technology to other industries: each one per cent increase in technology-driven productivity yields an additional $8 billion for the Canadian economy, says ICTC president and CEO Namir Anani, who inadvertently began developing the report when he started collaborating with a group of organizations including the CATAAlliance and CIO Association of Canada to research the country’s rate of technological adoption.

“We found that adoption was not taking place,” Amani says. “It was an eye-opener… so we started to look at the impediments… specifically the small companies with 20 employees or below that represent 75 per cent of Canada’s industry… the main impediment was access to talent.”

During a three-month period, ICTC researchers consulted with industry, education, government, and professionals across Canada regarding the problem, ultimately asking more than 500 individuals and organizations to contribute potential solutions.

Since “at the end of the day a strategy without a base of action is not going to make a difference,” Amani says, ICTC has also formed three national taskforces composed of industry, education, and government leaders: Education and Skills; Industry Growth; and Diversity and Inclusion.

The result is a living strategy that will continue to evolve, he says, with ICTC staff regularly meeting with members of each taskforce and key stakeholders, including lead sponsor Microsoft Canada, to evaluate their progress.

“We’re at the cusp of a whole new digital transformation that’s much bigger than has happened in the past,” he says. “This [national talent strategy] represents an opportunity for us as a country to figure out how we can seize that opportunity moving forward.”

“I’m really pleased this conversation is happening,” Microsoft Canada president Janet Kennedy tells ITBusiness.ca. “I don’t think there’s any question that Canadians are behind on productivity, and I think we can do something about that very quickly in terms of helping more Canadians have easy and affordable access to technology.”

The seven pillars representing ICTC’s national digital talent strategy are below. Meanwhile, you can read the organization’s 57-page report here.

Pillar 1: Making computer science education mandatory from Kindergarten through Grade 12

It’s hardly a new argument that if Canada wants to succeed in the digital economy, it needs to build a stronger pipeline for talent – starting at the elementary and secondary level with an increased focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and IT courses, the report says, noting that while many youth recognize the value of STEM, few end up choosing it as a field of study.

Pillar 2: Removing barriers to full participation in the ICT field by women, immigrants, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and visible minorities

Despite Canada’s diversity, too much of the IT industry remains a white boy’s club, with women comprising 25 per cent of the digital economy and immigrants 40 per cent, according to the report. It’s a problem that ICTC would like to see the industry address through such measures as new learning opportunities (ex. coding lessons or leadership courses) aimed at underrepresented groups, or providing small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) with resources that can help them identify and address unconscious bias in their organizations.

Pillar 3: Providing incentives such as tax credits to reduce the financial burden on small and medium-sized businesses to upskill employees in ICT

Every $100,000 invested into training 10 mid-career IT professionals in emerging technologies can potentially contribute $2.1 million to Canada’s GDP, according to ICTC, but with more than 75 per cent of Canada’s tech workers employed by organizations with fewer than 10 employees – and therefore limited resources to invest in talent – few have the opportunity, a situation the report would like to see governments at all levels change using mechanisms such as subsidies or tax credits.

Pillar 4: Attracting and retaining global talent

As Canada’s population growth continues to decline, domestic talent will become increasingly scarce. Fortunately, the report notes, Canada has a tradition of welcoming global talent; unfortunately, the transition process to keep skilled foreign workers in Canada can be a long and convoluted one, an issue ICTC would like to see addressed by having federal and provincial policymakers collaborate with the tech industry to ensure that foreigners can be more easily connected with positions in high demand.

Pillar 5: Strengthening Canadians’ digital literacy and related skills

Strong digital literacy not only increases one’s ability to navigate an increasingly digital world, it also boosts technology consumption, increasing demand for technology-related goods and creating a culture that could attract more digital entrepreneurs and companies to Canada, the report says, adding that governments, companies, and educators alike should develop and expand the availability of free online technology resources such as cyber-security advice, and provide their services through digital means whenever possible.

Pillar 6: Fostering digital entrepreneurship

Canada lags behind other advanced economies when it comes to translating research and development into commercialized products and services, ranking 22nd for innovation in the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Competitiveness Report – despite large per-capita investments by the federal government, the report says. In this case, ICTC would like to see more investment from private companies and venture capitalists, though the report notes that post-secondary education and government can play a role too, by encouraging projects with commercial potential.

Pillar 7: Building labour mobility pathways to fill high demand occupations

With the tech industry rapidly expanding while traditional economic powerhouses like manufacturing and oil and gas decline, there’s never been a greater opportunity for governments and companies alike to develop and take advantage of a deep, unused talent pool, perhaps by prioritizing certain sectors, creating training programs, or extending employment insurance benefits to include skills development.

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