Canada’s IT skills shortage likely to get worse, experts say

The perennial shortage of IT talent we’ve witnessed over the past few years is likely to intensify even further, experts say.

A radical mindset shift is required of hiring managers as well new graduates entering the workforce, they say. They also urge organizations to look very closely at their work environment and implement far-reaching changes to attract and retain new talent.

“When it comes to skilled labour, the IT sector has always faced a greater challenge than other professions,” notes Terri Joosten, CEO of CareerDoor Inc.

The Toronto firm helps employers attract and hire hi-tech professionals using various channels — online, print and face-to-face. To this end, over the years, it has organized several career fairs.

Organizations getting “picky”

Joosten points to a definite shift in expectations on the part of employers, as well as recent IT grads entering the workforce.


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“Many of these new graduates are averse to doing hands on work — programming, tech support and so on. They have this notion that having got their degree from the University of Waterloo, they can walk into CIO-type positions. They don’t want to be the doers, but the ones telling people what to do.”

On the other hand, she said, organizations have also become over-picky about whom they are willing to hire. “Many insist on getting 100 per cent of what they want from a potential hire — and then some more.”

Such fastidiousness, the Career Door CEO said, often causes hiring managers to exclude people who lack Canadian experience — such as recent immigrants — from consideration, though the latter might have all the required qualifications and expertise.

“The result is there’s a lot of unutilized or underutilized IT immigrant talent in Canada. Qualified immigrants end up working in non-skilled jobs just because lack Canadian experience.”

When these immigrants find they can’t get jobs in keeping with their skills and training they spread the word back home, and this deters other skilled tech professionals in the countries that they left from moving to Canada. “They won’t come here because they don’t want the same thing to happen to them.”

Joosten said before spending more money trying to entice even more qualified immigrants to come to Canada, we need to encourage employers to hire folk who are already here and have the needed skills.

In the case of senior IT roles — architects, business analysts, project managers — they’re still very hard to come by. There’s no dearth of applicants for these positions, Joosten noted. “But when you consider whether they have what it takes to do the job effectively, it’s a different story.”

Of course, this situation is not peculiar to IT, she said. “The same would be true for an A-level player in any arena you’re hiring for. There’s just an overall lack of good talent out there.”

One key reason for the overall labour crunch, according to another industry observer, is the growing disconnect between the number of older folk exiting the workforce and younger people entering it.

The challenge isn’t just that “boomers are getting older and retiring, it’s the undersupply of youth,” noted Linda Duxbury, professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. The wider issue, she said, is Canadian families are having fewer children.

Duxbury was speaking at The Business of Ideas Forum organized by the Canadian Marketing Association in Toronto recently.

In Canada we need 2.1 children per family to keep our population stable, while the birth rate right now is 1.54, Duxbury noted. “The last time we nailed that 2.1 number was in 1969.”

She said today the average age a Canadian enters the labour market, landing their first permanent job, is 25 years. “They finish high school, then take a year [before going to college or university]. The average student now takes five years to finish a four-year degree. They’re in no rush.”

A workforce full of overworked boomers

This undersupply of youth to the labour market will have some unfortunate consequences, she suggested. “In this particular recession, our workforce is 58 per cent grumpy, cranky, overworked, overstressed boomers.”

She said organizations have already eliminated all the fat from the system by downsizing, restructuring, re-engineering, and getting rid of people, but not the work. “Pushing even more work on people who are left is going to be problematic.”

Increased longevity and an undersupply of youth in Canada will result in a population with a lot more older people, the Carleton University professor said. That in turn will have a big impact on the workforce.

“The way to think about this is as follows: For the next 25 years at least, until you can get that fertility rate up, for every two people retiring from the workforce, there’s only one person ready to take their place. It’s the older workaholic baby boomers who are leaving. They’re being replaced by the younger, saner ‘you’ve got to be kidding me’ generation.”

Duxbury said what we actually need is, for every two boomers leaving three younger people to take their place. And while the current financial crisis is predicted to last for another year or two there’s no end in sight to the “sellers market for labour.”

The composition of the workforce has changed significantly since over the past four decades, she said.

In the 1970s we had a good balance. The boomers who were in born in the 40s and 50s were entering the market. And we had around the same number of older people leaving.”

Fast forward to 2011.  According to Duxbury, we’ll be exiting this recession with a workforce composed of an oversupply of an aging boomers and undersupply of youth. And this will become a significant management challenge, she said.

Conventional approaches to dealing with this challenge are becoming less effective.

For instance, g etting a steady supply of skilled immigrants from outside Canada is becoming very difficult, she said.

“Last year we brought in 230,000 immigrants and just 60,000 of those were labour market ready. Many were children and parents of the people who live here. Most did not have the number one skill required by the Canadian market, a knowledge of one of the two official language, English or French.”

She said to satisfy the labour force need we would need to bring in 650,000 – 750,000 immigrants by 2016. “What are our chances of doing that? Zero.”

Durbury, like Career Door’s Joosten, also rues the fact that a great deal immigrant talent remains unutilized or underutilized. “We bring in all these people and then treat them horribly, we don’t recognize their credentials, we’re very closed – and they’re telling people back home about their experience.”

She said many geographies we previously looked upon as source countries for skilled labour may not provide as many people as we thought.

The way to begin to tackle this problem, she said, is for organizations to think differently and revisit their recruitment and retention practices and policies.

“Actually today, it’s about retention, because it costs a lot to hire and if those you recruit don’t stay you’re throwing money away that you could use strategically.”

She said companies today have to deal with a very different set of expectations.  The younger generation wants balance, but we haven’t really managed this well.  “And we haven’t recognized the relationship between balance and hours of work. Instead we’ve focused on policies,” said Duxbury who did the national study on work-life balance in 1991 and 2001, and will be doing the 2011 study as well.

Work-life balance vital

Joosten noted that for younger professionals, including IT workers, “balance” includes a flexible work environment that suits their unregimented life-style.

“Take the software development realm — many of these Yahoo programmers will stay up all night and sleep all morning. If you can accommodate them coming in at noon and working till midnight, or let them work remotely, you’ll likely be much more successful.”

As well, for this generation, the ability to use their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networking channels is important, she said, and should be accommodated so long as productivity doesn’t suffer.

But expecting already overloaded managers to handle a workforce with new expectations, may not be realistic.

“The manager’s job has become the worst job in the organization over the past few years,” according to Duxbury. “You’re expected to be an operational expert, an HR expert, a labour management expert, a coach, a typist … and hey can you change the light bulb?!”

She said her research data indicates that managers are being expected to implement downward policies they had no say in, and when people are unhappy it comes back to them as well.

The other key issue is employee training and many observers note that organizations have a great deal to do in this area.

Duxbury, for instance, says companies skimping on employee training is all too common, and has dire consequences. She said younger people link training to their employability, but many firms take the view that employees should get training on their own time and on their own buck. “Even when courses are offered people cannot attend because they’re too busy.”

A Canadian tech analyst echoes this view.

“With the recent recession, many companies have slashed training budgets,” said Jennifer Perrier-Knox, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont. 

She said in the IT realm while historically, IT management has offered money for employees to receive training, many staff haven’t acted on the offer. “They tend to feel they can’t take time away from work. They see it as a luxury and feel guilty. IT managers need to be more active in making sure their staff receives the right training. It shouldn’t be left up to the employee to make it happen, because it won’t.”

Joosten notes that recent surveys in the IT space show that scope for training and development is something potential candidates consider carefully when they decide who they want to work with. 

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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