Ontario budget seeks to address IT skills shortage

Ontario’s budget, unveiled Tuesday, parcels new spending to the IT industry in the form of provisions for e-health, and spending on skills training.

While welcoming these initiatives, IT industry insiders say they aren’t enough to resolve the IT skills shortage.

This is Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s first budget and also the Liberal party’s first since it was re-elected to parliament with a majority government last Fall.

The economic plan outlines over $90 billion in spending.

The most significant investment related to the IT industry lies in a three-year, $1.5 billion Skills to Jobs Action Plan, says Bernard Courtois, president of Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), the Ottawa-based advocacy group.

One of the Plan’s objectives is to support students in the jobs of the future – especially those that “strengthen Ontario’s competitive advantage.”

Specifically, the budget will invest:

  • $560 million to support new skills for new careers
  • $465 million to expand post-secondary student aid and programs
  • $970 million to build places to learn.

“The focus on skills and investing in people is something businesses care a lot about,” Courtois says. “You’re not going to beat developing countries on costs, but you’re going to beat them on innovation with highly-trained people.”

Additionally, a $355 million, three-year plan will help 20,000 unemployed workers transition to a new career, so long as they commit to a long-term training plan in growing areas of the economy.

ICT is one of the industries that will benefit from those career-training funds, Courtois says.

But, he also notes that these programs won’t feed the IT skills crunch with the knowledge workers it needs.

“It’s not as if you’re going to take someone on a production line and turn them into a computer scientist,” the ITAC president says. “This is not going to fill the gaps we have, but [will] help solve some challenges of the Ontario economy.”

The IT industry still needs people in logistics, sales, management and other departments if it is going to succeed, the ITAC president says.

The budget also included a $47 million investment in e-health over this year and next, growing to $239 million for 2010-11. The funding will support diagnostic imaging, drug and lab information, and create a new Diabetes Registry.

Though Smart Systems for Health Agency (SSHA) – the government Agency tasked with creating an IT infrastructure for Ontario’s healthcare facilities – is not directly mentioned in the budget, it does provide the services mentioned, says Paul Kilbertus, director of communications for the agency.

“We’re building [helping] to bring the power of IT to healthcare,” he says. These are projects “that are starting to ramp up after a number of years of ground work.”

Kilbertus said diagnostic imaging access through SSHA’s dedicated network is in demand, and the Drug Profile Viewer program is also being rolled out from emergency rooms to include other healthcare facilities.

The Diabetes Registry has yet to be defined in any clear terms.

“We will see exactly what this means,” Kilbertus says. “But we’ve provided some of the infrastructure that allows the information to be stored and secured, so we expect to be involved.”

The Liberals have also set aside $30 million to unroll broadband Internet access into rural communities throughout southwestern Ontario.

The idea here is to increase access to e-health and e-government services.

The money will help hook up communities where private business hasn’t been incensed to make investments, Courtois says.

Business is also being pushed to innovate with a 10-year tax exemption granted to new corporations that commercialize the intellectual property developed by Canadian colleges and universities.

SMB owners performing scientific research and experimental development will also get a 10 per cent refundable tax credit.

“There’s a strategic advantage, where if you can get multiple companies working together with institutions… you get global, mandate-leading initiatives,” Courtois says.

A $25 million pledge is aimed at assisting the manufacturing sector.  

Manufacturing companies could have a huge positive impact on the economy if they can be helped to be more productive through technology, Courtois says.  

A couple of post-secondary schools are gaining new technology learning centres as a direct result of this budget.

The University of Waterloo at Stratford is getting $10 million for a digital media and convergence centre, while $9 million goes to the Ontario College of Arts and Design for a laboratory

Students attending college and university full time will get some money from the Textbook and Technology Grant.

The $385 million total breaks down to $150 per student this Fall, $225 next year and $300 each year after that.

“Well, you can get a pretty good laptop for $600 nowadays, so this is pretty good to pay for half of it,” Courtois says.

Still, the amount is a fraction of what the average student spends on textbooks alone – about $1,000 a year –  according to the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

The textbook plan makes good on a Liberal election promise.

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