Tech firms partner with Ottawa schools to battle IT talent crunch

David Dapaah and his gang descend on the BlackBerry smartphone on the table with one intent- crack it wide open and spill its guts out. Just as they’ve done with the desktop PC, and the XO laptop.

No, they’re not a bunch of kids on a destructive binge. Dapaah and his group mates actually want to find out what makes the devices tick. “The XO laptop was pretty complicated and the group struggled at first but it was interesting … the BlackBerry was not hard at all,” says the Grade 12 student.

He and his colleagues are part of the Ottawa High School Technology Program (OHSTP), a pilot project initiated by the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI), the Ontario Centres for Excellence and several technology companies intent on boosting youth interest in the IT industry.

The alliance wants the program — currently tapping some 48 students from the Earl of March and All Saints Catholic High School in Kanata — to eventually be expanded throughout the country and hopefully reverse an IT talent shortage that threatens to cost the Canadian economy at least $10.8 billion.

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The entire project is designed around social computing, the open source community and the XO laptop – the no-frills notebook designed under the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative that aims to provide $100-notebooks with stripped down operating systems to children in under-developed countries.

The students get to work with IT experts, go on field trips to various tech companies, and take apart world-leading technology under the guidance of tech professionals who helped build the device.

At the end of the two-season program the students break into groups to build educational games that can run on the XO laptop. The games will eventually be used in OLPC pilot programs around the world.

While the students’ creation will benefit other children from across the globe who are hard up on technology, organizers of the program hope the activity will eventually help Canada close its growing IT labour gap.

According to the Conference Board of Canada socio-demographic factors, negative perceptions of the tech sector following the bubble burst of 2002 and a significant drop in university enrolments in IT programs across Canada are to blame for the talent shortage.

“Studies indicate that more than 90,000 jobs in the information technology sector will have to be filled within the next four years,” says Claude Haw, CEO and president of the OCRI.

“If these positions are not filled, the situation could potentially impact the Canadian economy to the tune of $10.8 billion or $120,000 per job,” he said.

That is why firms like IBM Canada Ltd., Macadamian Technologies Inc. and Nortel Networks have allied together with OCRI to provide the tech mentorship program to Ottawa high school kids.

“We need to spark interest on IT among the youth. Hopefully they will think about tech when they move on to university,” Haw says.

And there is no better place to start such a program than Ottawa, according to a teacher whose students are amongst the program’s first batch of participants.

“Ottawa is among the regions hardest hit by the the recent recession,” says Gina Cianci, math department teacher at the Earl of March Secondary School. She has some 25 students aged 15 to 16, enrolled in the mentorship program. The students created a picture dictionary in four languages that was chosen to be pre-installed in XO laptops for distribution abroad. The students each won an IBM laptop for their participation.

“These students live in a region where, over the past few years, it has been quite normal to hear about tech companies closing down and people, some other their parents, relatives or friends’ parents, losing jobs,” Cianci said.

It was only natural for some students and parents to feel disillusioned about IT and hence stay away from enrolling in technical or science subjects, she adds.

But Cianci believes it is important for Ottawa to be able to provide a local source of IT talent for those companies that have stayed on and are prepared to see it through the current recession.

“Beyond the doom and gloom, people have to realize that some of these companies are still willing to stay and are opening their doors to hire. Ottawa needs to be able to supply that demand,” she said.

For now, the project appears to have made its mark on a few young minds.

Grade 12 student Dapaah who was involved in opening up a BlackBerry and a computer, says: “It’s not really my thing, but I found it very interesting to discover how things work. It’s fun.” He even co-produced a video tracking their progress and the team posted it on a Web site as a social networking project.

“The program gets the students outside the classrooms and into the tech work environment to play with, and discover how everyday technology that affects out lives actually work,” said Jessica Schonberg, a grade 11 student.

And that, says Cianci, is the main purpose of the program: “To show that technology is fun and cool and that the youth can have an influence on IT.”

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