OCRI president: Debate over skills shortage is over

OTTAWA (OBJ) — Two recent surveys have added fuel to the argument that Canada, and in particular Ottawa, will be critically short of skilled high-tech workers in the next few years.

The Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) has released the results of its annual survey of the technology scene in the capital. While the OCRI survey showed that more knowledge-based employees than ever are employed in Ottawa, a plan is needed to address an expected shortfall.

And a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 155 companies in Ontario found that a majority were worried of labour shortages down the road, and more than three quarters claimed they will implement solutions to fix them.

In the meantime, however, most companies told the PwC survey said they getting by simply by making their existing employees pick up the slack.

Data collected by OCRI showed that the number of technology employees in Ottawa-Gatineau grew by 4.4 per cent to 79,466 in 2006, a record high for the OCRI survey, surpassing 2000’s year-end high of 79,000. But with university enrolment in tech programs still well below pre-bust levels, concern is spreading.

Jeffrey Dale, OCRI president and CEO, said the numbers are finally convincing governments, the business community and post-secondary institutions that work is needed.

“The debate is over, finally, on whether we’re running into critical talent shortages,” he said. “We’ve had a great year, don’t get me wrong. This is the third consecutive year of growth in the tech sector. It’s not an aberration, the tech sector is back.

“(But) what we’re seeing now, is that in order to continue the momentum, we’re going to (need) a talent strategy in place. Every company that we’ve talked to has positions that they can’t staff,” he said. “If we do not address the technology labour force trends and plan for the future, then the ongoing supply of critical talent will be at risk.”

Mel Mulligan, vice-president of human resources at Ottawa’s Liquid Computing, told the OBJ his company resorted to “stunts” to attract top candidates to open positions it had last fall.

Currently, the firm has all its positions filled. But Mr. Mulligan said that was likely temporary.

“My concern would be . . . the supply of people at the junior levels,” he said. “I am concerned about enrolment being down. Looking out five years plus, my concern is that we will be experiencing a shortage of experienced, qualified, engineering types of individuals. Certainly in the Ottawa area.”

At the same time, the PricewaterhouseCooopers’ survey found that almost 57 per cent of companies it surveyed in Ontario said a shortage of talent was slowing business growth. Eighty-four per cent said they planned to put more emphasis on staff retention.

In the meantime, companies are simply getting by with what they have, survey author Eric Andrew noted.

“The survey shows the main response is to work harder and place an increasing demand on their workers,” he said.

While the numbers were even higher in other provinces, like Alberta, Mr. Andrew said this type of a concern is a new one.

“While growth forecasts are up, respondents acknowledge that there are issues and challenges that influence their company,” he wrote. “For the second year, labour shortages top the list overall.

“It’s interesting to note that in 2005, our respondents did not raise these issues as concerns,” he added, however. “This suggests that companies are failing to undertake scenario planning and observe the impact of external factors on their business model and forecasts.”

One way to address the problem is with a “talent strategy,” Mr. Dale said.

Besides “re-skilling” current employees and encouraging more students to consider IT programs at universities, Mr. Dale said encouraging more talent to come to Ottawa was a priority.

“That could mean attracting them from Montreal or Vancouver, or we could be looking at immigration,” he said. “We have to have that continuous pipeline of talent available.”

Gary Davis, executive director at the Ottawa Talent Initiative, echoed OCRI’s call for a strategy.

“We need to stop riding the employment rollercoaster and engage industry, education and government to commit to a collaborative approach,” he said.

To get the ball rolling, OCRI’s Mr. Dale said a number of players need to be committed in the long run.

“I think everyone’s coming on board,” he said. “Obviously, the schools are interested in this topic. They’ve seen the decline in enrolment. They’re the ones asking us to get the meetings together with the business community.

“Also, the government is starting to see it. We need governments involved, because it’s going to have to be funded, and if it’s going to be an immigration issue, for us to be a city that’s attractive to immigration,” Mr. Dale added.

Ottawa Business Journal

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