Educators say geek mentality could begin as early as Grade 7

According to a group of IT professionals and educators, it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract newcomers to the profession, particularly young women.

Recruitment began to suffer immediately after the dot-com bubble burst, said Alim Somani, president of Toronto-based software development firm Infusion Development.

During the dot-com heyday, IT was flooded with people looking to take advantage of the influx of capital and burgeoning job market – often without the qualifications necessary to handle job criteria.

“You had people taking six-week courses. You had people coming from every walk of life wanting to become computer programmers,” said Somani, who was one of five members of an IT careers panel convened by Microsoft Canada Co. on Thursday.

At the time, it was difficult to find worthy job candidates due to the overwhelming number of people entering technology, he said. But the situation was reversed after the crash. IT lost its lustre and earned a reputation as an unstable career field.

The number of students enrolled in IT-based post-secondary education programs has also decreased in recent years, resulting in fewer graduates entering the job market. “The bar is dropping (in education),” said Daniel Shapiro, academic program manager at Microsoft Canada. “From a Microsoft perspective, that’s a big risk for us right now.”

Michael Katchabaw, an assistant professor in the department of computer science at the University of Western Ontario agreed that it’s a cause for concern. “We’ve seen the same kind of decline in enrollment that we’ve seen across North American.”

The problem is particularly pronounced when it comes to women. IT remains a male-dominated profession and it can be a challenge to get women interested in the field. At the high school level, it can be difficult to break the perception among young people – both males and females – that IT is a job for nerds.

“You might be lucky if you have one girl in a Grade 11 or 12 computer science class,” said Katchabaw.

It’s important to start teaching children about IT before the stereotypes have a chance to set in, said Shapiro, who suggested that the minimum should be Grade 7.

Even that may be too old, said Sandra Saric, an information systems manager at the Software Human Resource Council, based in Ottawa. “Grade 7 or 8 is almost too late,” she said. “That geek mentality is already forming.”

Saric said she was drawn to working in IT almost through necessity – she learned the basics by fixing her own faulty PC. “It was more natural than heading to law school,” she said.

From there she discovered an affinity for technology and learned that it was part of a larger business context. “It’s the ability to continually learn and change and grow within the environment.”

Zubine Khambatta, a senior consultant at Infusion Development, is one of only a handful of women at the company. Geek connotations persist in the IT, but she became interested in it partly through the encouragement of her family.

“My dream job was to be a C++ developer,” she said. But, like Saric, she soon became more interested in the business side of IT.

The perception of IT is not that it’s just for geeks but also that it leads to the life of a “code monkey” who just programs all day, said Katchabaw.

But the number of pure programming jobs in Canada is rapidly shrinking, said Somani. Those tasks tend to be the ones that are outsourced to India. It’s the business-oriented IT skills that are prized more highly, he said. Even a few years ago, Java and .Net developers were in high demand, but today companies are looking for people who can see the bigger picture. As such, soft skills and the ability to collaborate with entire departments are of increasing value to employers.

Group-based learning is being emphasized at Western, said Katchabaw, to encourage students to reproduce that behaviour in the workforce. Curricula are also being updated to reflect changes in IT as a whole, like the introduction of a biotechnology program.

Overall enrollment in IT programs may be down, said Katchabaw, but the flip side of the coin is that the people who do chose technology as a career are passionate about it. “These are the people who would have come, no matter what,” he said. “These are the people who really excel at what they’re doing.”

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