The IT industry’s economic pinch has hit the post-secondary education level, leaving students scrambling for co-op placements, according to Canadian colleges and universities.
The once routine task of finding IT students spots within large organizations to round out course work has become a
challenge for program organizers, who admit that some students are simply left without the opportunity to gain work placement experience.
Olaf Naese, communications and PR administrator for cooperative education and career services at the University of Waterloo, said that as of Wednesday morning, 459 students were still looking for jobs for the May to August work term. Of this number, 355 of the students are in math and engineering, the two areas with IT students. Of those students, 225 are about to go into their first work term.
“”You can see where the problem lies. First of all, it lies with the junior students,”” he said. “”They don’t have the experience that employers are looking for, they’re always the ones that get nailed as far as not getting a job through the system, and most of them are in IT. Relatively few students in the other areas don’t have employment.””
According to Naese, students in architecture, accounting, environmental studies and science are all well over 90 per cent employed, but students looking to spend their work terms in IT-related jobs are struggling.
Ian Wallace, student and workplace liaison officer at Humber College in Toronto, has also noticed a strain when he seeks out co-op opportunities for IT students. One part of the probem is the overall IT economic woes: Because companies pay for co-op students to complete projects, some organizations are finding it difficult to justify spending resources in this way, despite tax incentives.
“”In a traditional co-op, a student is out at a company for four months, five days a week, and is paid for the placement,”” he said. According to Wallace, Humber and other institutions have become flexible in the way that their co-op programs are designed, and are willing to construct a placement according to what works for the company.
“”We’ve introduced work placements that are not traditional co-op placements,”” he said. “”Instead of going for four months, we have some where students go for one day a week throughout their final semester, and this amounts to an unpaid placement. For the student this is still of some assistance, but companies don’t have to make the financial commitment of paying for four months.””
A second stumbling block, Wallace said, directly stems from the massive job cuts at many firms. The job market is filled with talented IT professionals with years of experience under their belts.
Naese agreed with this theory.
“”With the dot-com crash a few years back and the large numbers of people laid off, we have to ask the question, where did they all go?”” he said. “”A lot of them, we believe, are offering their skills as contract employees and are taking short term jobs — the same sorts of jobs that co-op students would traditionally take. This is competition we’ve never had before.””
Along with this comes the discomfort that some companies might experience in hiring co-op students to fill positions left by more senior employees that have been let go. This is what Kevin Rolston, ACST and CIS co-operative education officer at Langara College in Vancouver, calls the guilt factor.
“”I don’t want to say ‘guilt’ in a mean way, but we see companies wanting to rehire people that were laid off if they have the opportunity,”” he said. “”On the other side of the coin, employees are also saying that by bringing in high-end, experienced people, they have to pay bigger bucks and deal with previous training issues. Sometimes they’d rather bring a student up in their own fold in terms of training,”” he said. “”They like to try before they buy, and can do that with students.””
Ralston estimates that the job postings are down by one-third to one-half of what they were a few years back.
Despite the current difficulties, Wallace is encouraged that things will pick up.
“”We’re in a valley right now, but we’re at the down part on the way back up. That’s the good news side of it,”” he said. Initiatives from government agencies are also helping.
The province of Ontario, through Communications and Information Technology Ontario (CITO), is doing its part to connect colleges and universities with the business community by supporting an internship program for graduate students. The program enables students to perform collaborative research within an organization as a part of a Masters or doctoral thesis, while receiving funding from both CITO and the company, according to Toronto-based CITO’s manager of business development, Martin Croteau.
“”Students benefit in terms of experience and the opportunity of working with a problem relevant to the industry today, and are paid for the work — they get $10,000 from the company and $20,000 from CITO. It’s also a quick and dirty way for companies to get access to expertise relatively inexpensively,”” Croteau said.
Additionally, the government of Canada announced funding Thursday for four projects to help youth acquire meaningful work experience.
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